Andrew Spicer, University of the West of England Abstract
The article argues that role of the producer in Film Studies has been unjustly neglected for two main reasons. The first is the problem of how to define the role as the term is often used to describe very different functions. The second is the negative image: producers are regarded as suspect figures, Philistine and avaricious representing the brute commercialism of the film industry as opposed to directors who represent art. Beginning with some brief general reflections on these issues, drawn from a range of sources, the article explores the significant creative role that producers can play through a case study of Sydney Box, based on archive sources, who had a long career in the British film industry from 1940-1967 as well as developing a strong presence in independent television in its formative years. The key events in Box’s varied career are discussed: the founding of Verity Films in 1940; the move to feature film making at Riverside; his period as Head of Gainsborough Studios, 1946-50; precarious independence in the 1950s and the establishment of Sydney Box Associates in 1958; the bid for London Weekday franchise and British Lion in 1964. The case study exemplifies the need to understand the producer’s role historically, as part of the changing modes of production within the British film industry and the shifting balance of power between production, distribution and exhibition. The article concludes by reflecting on what criteria can best be employed in order to assess a producer’s achievement satisfactorily.
Producer; British film industry; Creativity; Sydney Box; British Lion.
A film producer has two responsibilities: to the public and to his backers. If he is an imaginative and courageous producer, the two may coincide. The ideal producer, it seems to me, must always look ahead and try not merely to acquiesce in box-office trends but to lead public opinion and gauge future audience requirements.1 Despite the increasing wealth of material appearing about British cinema, the role of producer continues to be a neglected area. There two main reasons for this neglect: the negative image of the producer and the difficulties in defining the role. As the director is conventionally regarded as the key creative influence within film-making - the auteur expressing a personal vision through the medium of film - the producer is relegated to a shadowy realm of business interests. Indeed, the producer is often seen as a highly suspect figure, hard-nosed, philistine and avaricious, with ‘a peculiar vocabulary and a distasteful penchant for starlets’ (Shaw, 1975: 18). The producer represents the unfortunate vulgarity of commercial film-making, an unwelcome reminder of film’s showground origins, its lack of cultural capital. For Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, the producer is the instrument of all the conservative, anti-creative elements in film-making: ‘a sort of bank guard. His objective is to see that nothing is put on the screen that people are going to dislike. This means practically 99 per cent of literature, thinking, probings of all problems.’ (In Bernstein, 2000: 394). In a less hostile account, William Fadiman characterises the producer as essentially a trimmer, pursuing not an artistic vision, but a saleable product: ‘expediency, compromise, accommodation, adjustment, conciliation - these are important words in the producer’s lexicon’ (Fadiman, 1972: 141). In addition, what seems to unite a remarkably heterogeneous group is the complete absence of any particular skills or professional training. It seems that anyone can become a producer and therefore any achievements seem unpredictable and fortuitous.
Even more problematic than this pejorative image, is the difficulty of defining the producer’s function. As Duncan Petrie observes, the ‘term “producer” is rather ambiguous in that it covers a range of very different tasks and responsibilities’ (Petrie, 1991: 181). Petrie distinguishes a producer, defined as ‘someone who is ‘responsible for developing a project and approaching potential investors for a financial commitment’, from an associate producer who supervises the day-to-day running of the production, and from an executive producer who is ‘usually connected with the company who [sic] has put up the money’ (Ibid.). Above all, the producer is the mediator between commerce and creativity, what Michael Balcon characterises as a ‘dual capacity as the creative man and the trustee of the moneybags’, whose key function is to have an overview of the of the whole film-making process: ‘that capability of looking at the film as an entity and be able to judge its progress and development from the point of view of the audience who [sic] will eventually view it’ (Balcon, 1945: 5). But, as Sydney Box remarks in my epigraph quotation, the ‘ideal’ producer is one who can both satisfy commercial imperatives (make films that are profitable) and lead public opinion rather than merely pandering to existing tastes. In what remains the most detailed study, Leo Rosten argues that the producer must be an all-rounder who possesses ‘the ability to recognize ability, the knack of assigning the right creative persons to the right creative spots. He should have knowledge of audience tastes, a story sense, a businessman’s approach to costs and the mechanics of picture making. He should be able to manage, placate, and drive a variety of gifted, impulsive, and egocentric people.’(Rosten, 1941: 238-39).
However talented, the producer’s authority must be seen in relation to the status of other key creative personnel (stars, screenwriters and directors) and also in relation to the strength or weakness of the production sector itself compared to distribution and exhibition. Therefore an adequate analysis of the producer’s function would have to situate it historically. Janet Staiger’s influential chapters on changing modes of production in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, demonstrates clearly the radical shifts in the producer’s function that occurred in an industry that evolved very rapidly both in relation to external economic forces and through the development of different types of organisation to remain profitable (Bordwell, et al. 1985: 85-153, 309-337). However, one must be wary of assuming that Staiger’s analysis is universal. Even a fairly cursory reading of Rachel Low suggest that although there are several striking similarities, Staiger’s American model is not fully applicable to a British context where changes occur at different times and in rather different ways because the British film industry was always smaller, less stable and more subject to outside pressures than its American counterpart (Low 1997). This sense of the chronic instability has led John Caughie to argue for the central role of the producer in British cinema because: ‘Outside of a studio system or a national corporation, art is too precarious a business to be left to artists: it needs organizers. The importance of the producer-artist seems to be a specific feature of British cinema, an effect of the need continually to start again in the organization of independence.’(Caughie, 1986: 200).
It is therefore vital to undertake a systematic and comprehensive survey that would look at the changing nature of the producer’s role since the beginnings of British cinema through to the present day. As Alexander Walker commented, ‘The tendency to ignore the role of the producers or production chiefs has to be resisted if films are to make sense as an industry that can sometimes create art’ (Walker, 1986: 17). What can be attempted here is a case study, based on archival sources, of the career of one producer, Sydney Box (1940-67), as its variety and vicissitudes illuminate many of the key issues already identified. Box’s career encompassed executive producer (of both documentaries and feature films), contract producer, independent feature film-maker, and impresario controlling a number of companies and with extensive interests in television. Box’s ability to straddle both film and an emergent commercial television, makes him particularly apposite for this issue of the Journal. Box was an established writer (of one-act plays) before he entered the film industry and his attempt to combine the roles of writer and producer always gave a particular dimension to his activities.
The Documentarist: Head of Verity Films Box formed Verity Films in March 1940, in partnership with Jay Gardner Lewis, to make short propaganda films for both the Government and the Services. Both men had a background of working for companies making short promotional films, Publicity and Strand respectively, and were used to working on a hand-to-mouth basis, where the script and the crew were quickly assembled whenever a commission had been obtained. But Box was the driving force who, after Lewis’s departure following an acrimonious row, established the company as an economical and reliable producer of propaganda shorts on an extraordinary variety of subjects ranging from Specialised Instructional films such as Decontamination of Streets (1943), through to Public Opinion (1945), a fifteen-minute short made on behalf of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, about the individual’s responsibility for helping to shape the future. Box’s role was to solicit commissions and act as overall co-coordinator of the work of individual production units. According to one of his associate producers, William MacQuitty, Box was at his most creative ensconced in the Two Brewers, where he ‘worked out ideas for films on the backs of envelopes with a stubby pencil and passed them to his accountant, Alfie Burlinson, to check costings’ (MacQuitty, 1991: 280).
Box’s ability to persuade various ministries or the armed forces to engage Verity’s services ensured that he was able to offer his technicians long-term contracts, which meant exemption from military service. This created an attractive environment for experienced personnel, for example, Daniel Birt and his wife Louise, as well as for talented newcomers such as Ken Annakin and Julian Wintle. Box was always prepared to give someone his or her first chance. By January 1943 Verity had become ‘by far the largest documentary film organization in Great Britain’ with a staff of eighteen writers and directors, ten cameramen, six production assistants, twelve editors and assistant editors and four in production management.2 By 1944 Verity advertised itself as ‘the largest short film production organisation in Europe’, with eight to ten units operating at any one time, having incorporated a number of other companies. It proved to be an excellent training ground for many people who would go on to have significant careers in feature films, including Box himself.
The Feature Film-Maker Box devoted less time and energy to Verity once his sister Betty established herself as a highly capable production manager and Burlinson had been promoted joint managing director in January 1943. Box used his reputation as an enterprising and efficient producer, who could also command the services of talented technicians and directors, a scarce resource in wartime, to make a move into the rather more glamorous and remunerative field of feature film production. But whereas he saw the shift as the opportunity to make films based on his own scripts, or ones written jointly with his wife Muriel, the reality was a loss of autonomy and control. On his first film, On Approval (1944), he was a glorified dogsbody for the star and co-producer Clive Brook, given the distasteful tasks - including sacking both the director, Brian Desmond Hurst, and the cinematographer, Gunther Krampf, after the first week of shooting - and kept under the closest scrutiny by Rank which financed the film (M. Box, 1974: 165). Box was equally unhappy as a contract producer for Two Cities, working not on the company’s prestige pictures such as Henry V, but its much more modest topical comedies and patriotic thrillers: English without Tears (1943), The Flemish Farm (1943) and Don’t Take It To Heart (1944). Box’s role was to undertake the detailed organisation of the films and to provide technical staff - Verity’s Eric Cross photographed Flemish Farm - but he had no significant creative input. For instance, his suggestion that Terence Rattigan’s script for English without Tears was fundamentally flawed and should be replaced by another story that he had written with Muriel was, unsurprisingly, vetoed by the studio head, Filippo Del Giudice.3
He attempted to regain creative control by a characteristically shrewd move: negotiating the long-term hire of Riverside Studios as studio space was at a premium during the war. However, having the facilities in which to shoot a film did not guarantee production finance would be forthcoming. Box’s first independent production, 29 Acacia Avenue (1945), a very modestly budgeted adaptation of Mabel and Denis Constanduros’s successful comedy, was only kept precariously afloat by private loans before Alfred Shipman, part owner of the Shipman and King circuit, stepped in (Dairies, 2 September 1944). Even then, Box had to secure distribution on one of the major circuits to have a chance of recouping the investment. When J. Arthur Rank was finally persuaded to attend a preview, he failed to share the audience’s enthusiasm at what he took to be a highly immoral film. Box refused Rank’s offer to reimburse the whole £45,000 that had been spent on the production to take the film permanently out of circulation as it would have implied that it was unshowable, hardly a recommendation to inspire confidence in future Box productions (Diaries, 8 February 1945). However, news of Rank’s rejection of this ‘dirty picture’ meant that other distributors were very wary of taking it on and it was turned down by several companies, before Shipman interceded with Joe Friedman, the London Head of Columbia Pictures, which added the film to its ‘package’ (S. Box, 1979: 73-4).
While the delays and difficulties of 29 Acacia Avenue continued, Box, already committed to renting space at Riverside, mounted his second production, The Seventh Veil (1945), with an original screenplay inspired by the Verity documentary The Psychiatric Treatment of Battle Casualties (1943), which detailed some of the new forms of therapy that had begun to be used in the rehabilitation of soldiers suffering from psychological trauma. These insights into psychoses were transferred to the depiction of the film’s winsome heroine, Francesca (Ann Todd), who narrates most of the action in flashback as she struggles to come to terms with her feelings for her menacing guardian Nicholas (James Mason). Box spent an extra £10,000 to secure Mason, who had fortuitously became available, knowing that his name ensured a West End showcase as well as the potential box-office generated by the most popular British male star.4 The screenplay was revised to build up his role into a more complex and romantic part tailored to Mason’s saturnine, brooding persona (Diaries, 22 January 1945). Although Rank approved this project and guaranteed £75,000 of the film’s costs - his wife admired this ‘jolly good story’ - that money would not be forthcoming until nine months after delivery (Diaries, 29 January 1945). Box once again had to employ ‘the arts of financial jugglery at which [he] excelled’, to keep the film afloat (M. Box, 1974: 171). He was loyally aided by Betty Box, whose job as assistant producer was to ward off ‘the howling wolves who wanted their money and wanted it without delay’ with a series of well practiced stalling devices (B. Box, 2000: 34).
The on-screen chemistry of Todd and Mason, lush music, and traditional romance given a topical gloss, combined to make The Seventh Veil an astonishing success, the highest-grossing film of 1945 in the domestic market.5 It also performed well in America where its ‘universal’ themes and straightforward style meant that it could play in a wide range of venues (Street, 2002: 92, 104, 114). In the midst of a number of hugely expensive ‘super-productions’, The Seventh Veil, completed in ten weeks for under £100,000, became a byword for ‘quality’ films made cheaply. The Spectator’s anonymous film correspondent thought it:
belongs to a type of film which the British industry has never previously achieved. It is an example of the intelligent, medium-priced picture made with great technical polish which has represented for Hollywood the middle path between the vulgar and the highbrow. If the British film industry is to satisfy a bigger proportion of the home market and then - having thus reduced our subservience to the American industry - is boldly to compete for markets overseas, I am convinced that businesslike films like The Seventh Veil which are sparing of time, studio-space and money should be our main stock in trade.6
Box’s triumph was complete when he and his wife gained an Oscar for ‘best original screenplay’.
This success transformed Box’s profile. He was identified as a ‘new sort of film-maker, a man with the same kind of cultural affinities and background which we find in any other sort of accomplished artist, [who] is gradually emerging here in Europe’ and explicitly contrasted with the ‘outmoded type’, the vulgar showman producer, ‘who drifted into movies in the early days, from circuses and traveling burlesque and dubious promotions’.7 As British cinema was judged to have ‘come of age’ during the war, so Box seemed the kind of cultivated, artistic entrepreneur, both writer and producer, who could help fulfill its potential. Keenly aware of the need to capitalise on this success, Box announced ambitious plans to make no less than fifteen films, three in Technicolor, over a two-year period at an overall cost of £1,500,000.8 At the same time, he wrote several pieces in the trade press detailing his strategy to nurture and develop new entrants to the industry as well as advertising himself as someone who had built an organisation from scratch - Verity Films - that had given numerous opportunities to creative and technical personnel.9 As a feature producer, he had already initiated a scheme to train promising actors - the Company of Youth - who would be properly instructed in deportment, voice-production, make-up and other technical aspects of their craft. They, together with fledgling directors and new writers, would be used in inexpensive ‘B’ features where they could learn their craft, overseen by an experienced producer. It was a coherent policy to build an industry on a secure and viable economic footing, a clear signal that he was the coming man.
Executive Producer: Gainsborough Pictures
This signal was particularly appealing to the Rank Organisation, which needed volume production to supply its circuits, precisely what was not forthcoming from its existing producers (PEP, 1952: 95). When Maurice Ostrer, who had averaged only 1.25 films per year, resigned as managing director of Gainsborough under pressure from Rank, Box was appointed as his replacement in March 1946. This meant a loss of independence - Rank had final say on whether a film was produced and could and did veto projects - but it afforded Box the opportunity to put into practice his cogent plans to build an indigenous film industry. Box declared that his ‘principal aim will be to step up the quantity of good British pictures’ thereby increasing the industry’s share of the domestic market, securing full employment and competing with the Americans (in Noble, n.d: 137-38). His ambitious target of twelve films a year was to be managed by judicious ‘rational planning’ of the resources at his disposal. He estimated that the six stages at his disposal - four at Lime Grove (Shepherd’s Bush) and two at Islington - generated ‘300 floor-weeks’ for building sets and shooting. As the average film took twenty-four weeks, twelve films a year meant 288 weeks were committed, leaving very little margin for retakes, over-runs and essential repairs and maintenance.10 Any productions that could reduce such pressure were encouraged, including ‘open air’ films (made almost entirely on location) such as A Boy, a Girl and a Bike (1949). Even so, there was a constant struggle to keep to schedule because the studio facilities were poor, especially at Islington, awkwardly designed and with much obsolescent equipment. In particular the sound system was inadequate and Box lobbied, unsuccessfully, to have Gainsborough re-equipped with Western Electric sound channels, encouraging better quality and a flexible interchangeability with Rank’s flagship studios at Denham and Pinewood.11
Box’s choice of film was guided by the need, as he saw it, to provide a ‘balanced production programme’, a broad spread of different genres that would offer ‘a variety of themes, stories and backgrounds’ to appeal to a wide audience.12 The Box regime is characterised by a judicious mixture of sophisticated comedies of manners such as Miranda (1948);populist comedies, notably the ‘Huggett’ series featuring ‘Britain’s best-loved family’; murder mysteries and psychological crime thrillers such as Daybreak (1948); social issues films contrastingly exemplified by Holiday Camp (1947), which was the basis of the Huggett series, and Good Time Girl (1948); ‘topicals’, such as Broken Journey (1948), based on newspaper accounts of the dramatic attempts to rescue the passengers from a Dakota that had crashed in the Italian Alps in November 1946; historical melodramas including Christopher Columbus and The Bad Lord Byron (both 1949); and a group of portmanteaux films which contained Easy Money (1948) that grouped four stories around the topical interest in the Football Pools. There was a loose category of ‘drama’ that included The Brothers (1947) - a powerful story of clan rivalries, ritual killings and fraternal hatred on the Isle of Skye in 1900 - which Box defended from charges of sadism; and also the innovative Somerset Maugham adaptations, Quartet (1948) and Trio (1949), which contained stories that were entirely independent of each other, not linked by a common theme, their length dictated by the nature of the story itself. Genres that Box never managed, though he announced several such productions, were fantasy and the musical. The best glimpse of these plans is the first (and only) part of Dylan Thomas’s fantasy-operetta, Me and My Bike written in the autumn of 1948 when he was under contract to produce three screenplays for Gainsborough and eventually published by Triton Books (owned by Box), in 1965.
In addition to ensuring volume production and a balanced programme, Box’s main function was to make certain that each film had an adequate budget and the most suitable creative team available. He had to decide how much directors, and in particular stars, should be paid. Box was involved in some difficult negotiations to bring Phyllis Calvert into line; but was not so successful with Margaret Lockwood whom he had to suspend (Lockwood, 1955: 12-13). His decisions about casting and budget were determined by the nature of the production. Although Box had been appointed to produce ‘medium budget’ first features, closer inspection of his output reveals a three-tier system. At the low end were the populist comedies and topical crime thrillers, produced for around £125,000 and with very tight shooting schedules. The majority of Gainsborough’s films occupied the middle tier, made for £165-180,000 and with slightly longer shooting schedules.13 At the top were the occasional ‘super-productions’ such as Christopher Columbus with its highly paid American star, Frederic March, extensive location shooting and lavish sets filmed in Technicolor. Once the ‘level’ of production had been determined, the precise allocation of studio space was left to his production manager Arthur Alcott, and Betty Box who was in charge at Islington. However, as the final arbiter about the quality of all Gainsborough films, Box had to resolve any intractable problems that occurred, which could include removing the director if he or she was deemed unsatisfactory, as happened on Lost People (1949)and Miranda. However, despite his own efforts as a frequent script ‘doctor’, and appointing Muriel in charge of a greatly enlarged Scenario Department, Box’s most persistent problem was the difficulty of obtaining good scripts, in part caused by his inability to afford the top writers.14 Box was also responsible for seeing films through postproduction: ‘conferences on music, editing and dubbing - and long arguments on delivery dates, titles, censorship and cuts’, right through to exhibition where he was ‘plunged into a welter of advertising, billing, exploitation, press shows and trade shows’.15 He was often involved in battles with Rank’s publicity department, especially with films such as The Brothers thatdemanded handling with a certain sensitivity. Box also had frequent skirmishes with the censors.
In addition to encouraging established personnel such as editor Alfred Roome to try his hand at directing, Box maintained his commitment to nurturing newcomers. He took on eleven new people including script advisers Jan Read and Peter Rogers, directors Ken Annakin and Terence Fisher, producer Antony Darnborough, and editor turned director Ralph Thomas.16 Box’s willingness to experiment can be illustrated by My Brother’s Keeper (1948) where the entire unit was new to films. Jack Warner holds this powerful and disturbing crime thriller together, but he is cast against type, as a clever but ruthless villain. In an article entitled ‘Box’s £125,000 Gamble’, Film Industry observed approvingly that My Brother’s Keeper ‘proved that British studios are full of young people who can make pictures every bit as good as those from Hollywood, if they are given a reasonable break’.17
Box’s tenure at Gainsborough was initially very successful. One commentator identified Box as ‘the apple of Mr Rank’s mercatorial eye’ because he had ‘showed himself willing from the first to discipline himself to forward planning, strict schedules, tight budgets, and interlocking inter-studio facilities’.18 However, his reputation was dented by The Bad Lord Byron and Christopher Columbus (costing over £500,000) which were critical and commercial disasters. However, the root cause of Rank’s decision to close Gainsborough Studios in 1949 and concentrate a more limited production programme entirely at Pinewood, was a more general crisis: in October 1948 Rank had announced production losses of £13.5 million (Wood, 1952: 228-40). The closure of Gainsborough removed Box’s relative autonomy. At Pinewood he was directly responsible to Earl St. John, in overall charge of production and also John Davis, Rank’s Managing Director, who undertook the task of rationalising production with ferocious zeal. Box was increasingly unable to influence production policy and was dismayed by apparently random changes of direction and ever more parsimonious financial accounting (Diaries, 15 February 1949). At the end of his year-long sabbatical that began in February 1950 - justified on medical grounds but also a release from increasing frustration - Box found that Davis would barely condescend to see him and stymied all the hard-won deals with American agents that he had brokered during his year off, along with the scripts he and Muriel had prepared (Diaries, 15 May 1951). In July 1951 Box left Rank to set up London Independent Producers, with William MacQuitty.
Perilous Independence: London Independent Producers and Sydney Box Associates
London Independent Producers (LIP) was run informally as Box and MacQuitty were close friends and neighbours, but it was launched in difficult conditions with the industry in recession. Its first film, The Happy Family (1952), must have seemed like déjà vu, another modestly budgeted adaptation of a successful stage comedy begun without full financing and secure distribution. Box’s attempt to go outside the combines and release the film through a small independent company, Apex, backfired when Apex failed to obtain a circuit release. A truncated version of The Happy Family opened in Chicago before its British première, and even then it was only released as the ‘half top’ of a double bill, a come down for Box (Diaries, 13 February 1952). However, the film’s considerable success in the home market ensured that further films by London Independent were distributed and part-financed by Rank: Street Corner (1953), a ‘riposte’ to Ealing’s The Blue Lamp which celebrated the sterling qualities of policewomen, a documentary-thriller, Forbidden Cargo (1954), and The Beachcomber (1954), another Maugham adaptation. However, as financier, distributor and exhibitor, Rank called the shots. On several occasions Box had to fight against interference from the Rank Board, including Balcon’s objections to Muriel as a woman director and also against what he considered to be the poor promotion of Box’s films.
Although, like any other independent producer, Box now had access to government funding in the form of the National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC), established in October 1948 to ‘carry the independent producers until the confidence of private investors was restored’, he was met on several occasions by intransigence, or seemingly arbitrary rejections (Diaries, 1 March 1952). Like all public bodies, the NFFC tended to play safe and avoid the risky or the controversial (See Harper and Porter, 2003: 5-34). In fact Box’s intermittent successes in the 1950s - including The Prisoner (1955), a co-production distributed by Columbia, which had high cultural capital if limited box-office - mask a hidden history revealed by the Diaries and his autobiography. Over twenty projects - including conventional thrillers, historical melodramas, comedy, satire, social issue films, adaptations of modern classics and a balletic version of The Seventh Veil - had to be abandoned in various stages of completion.
One of Box’s attempts to control such a volatile and often hostile marketplace was the acquisition of Beaconsfield Studios in January 1956, vacated when the state run Group 3 Productions ceased production. Initially Beaconsfield was used as an outlet to establish his brother-in-law, Peter Rogers, as a producer, making low-budget crime thrillers directed by Gerald Thomas. But it also accommodated quickly produced teen musicals The Tommy Steele Story (1957) and 6.5 Special (1958), and two ambitious films The Passionate Stranger (1957) and The Truth About Women (1958), which Box produced and for which he co-wrote the original screenplayswith Muriel, who also directed. The first was a mild satire intended to debunk the sentimental novel; the second a comedy with serious undertones, which boasted a star cast, costumes by Cecil Beaton and a witty script. However, even in this instance Box’s independence was circumscribed. The distributor, British Lion, considered The Truth About Women to be slow and off-target, therefore released it without a press show or West End première, which scuppered its box-office chances.19 Plans to produce further films with British Lion were aborted.
A more ambitious attempt to secure genuine independence was the formation of Sydney Box Associates (SBA) in December 1958, consisting of Box, Betty Box, Peter Rogers, Ralph Thomas, William MacQuitty and David Deutsch, son of Oscar Deutsch, who had been an associate producer on a number of Box productions. SBA led the trend towards producer consortia that included Bryanston (April 1959) and Allied Film Makers (September 1959), which attempted to switch control from the distributor to the producers themselves. Investment from its members and a distribution deal with Rank meant that SBA had a rolling production fund that spread the risk over a number of films.20 One of its first, Blind Date (1959),directed by Joseph Losey and produced by Deutsch, was skillfully pre-sold to Paramount by SBA’s independent overseas distributor Monarch Films, which meant that it was in credit before the production started (see Ciment, 1985: 170). This deal helped establish SBA’s reputation and attracted other independents, which could be offered 75 per cent of their budget. Those releasing through SBA included Brian Rix, The Night We Dropped a Clanger (1959), and Basil Dearden and Michael Relph, Desert Mice (1959). Box used the company to secure a deal with Screen Gems, the television arm of Columbia, to co-produce a thirty-nine episode adventure series, Ivanhoe, shot at Beaconsfield. Box, who was on the Board of Tyne Tees Television as a major shareholder, was keen to diversify into television, which he recognised as another opportunity rather than feared as a rival.
A number of other ambitious film and television deals were reported in the press, including a 78-part British detective series starring Broderick Crawford and thirty Edgar Wallace adaptations to be filmed as hour-long second features shot at Twickenham Studios.21 By August 1959 Box could be referred to as Britain’s most important independent producer with films in production at four studios simultaneously, plans to make twenty films in the next two years and further television series.53 However, this diversification and expansion of interests placed ever greater strain on Box’s health and he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in August 1959, having just secured a deal with Cinerama to make three ‘spectaculars’ costing $2 million each beginning with William the Conqueror (S. Box, 1979: 94-5). On doctor’s advice, he relinquished nearly all his film and television interests. Peter Rogers was placed in charge of SBA, but neither he nor Betty Box was interested in running the company, which had become too complex and intricate to be run by anyone other than Box himself.22
London Independent Television Producers and the Bid for British Lion Box’s re-emergence was characteristically expansive and imaginative. In essence it was a two-pronged attack on the film and television oligopolies, what Box referred to as the Big Two (Rank and ABPC) and the Big Four (ABC Television, Associated-Rediffusion, ATV and Granada). His opportunity arose in late 1963 when British Lion was up for sale and bids were invited for commercial television franchises, due to be renewed in 1964. To make a bid for the London Weekday franchise held by Associated-Rediffusion, Box set up London Independent Television Producers with a Board of seven directors, including Box, James Carr (World Wide Pictures), William MacQuitty and Ted Willis, responsible for the day-to-day running, a Board of governors to advise the directors on matters of policy, and a group of one hundred ‘associates’, mostly well-known film and television producers and directors, performers or writers, who ‘had pledged themselves to provide special programmes at intervals on a fee basis, without any sort of retainer’ (Sendall, 1983: 214). The recently ennobled Lord Willis argued that such an arrangement would ensure a ‘new and more equal partnership between producers and management’, which would ‘disrupt the established order’ (in Sendall, 1983: 214-15). The Observer saw this bid as a ‘revolt of the intellectuals’, showing the dissatisfaction that creative people felt with the business ethos of commercial broadcasting.23 The Independent Television Authority Board admired the ‘vigour and freshness of approach and liveliness of imagination’ in LIP’s plans for programming, but judged it weak financially in comparison with the incumbent, Associated-Rediffusion, which had its contract renewed (Sendall, 1983: 215).
The parallel bid for British Lion was similarly motivated: a desire to retain the company as the vital ‘third force’ in British cinema that could combat the power of Rank and ABPC, and provide independent producers and directors with a reasonable chance of having their films made and distributed. Box’s bid, backed by the Standard Industrial Trust, was considered attractive by the NFFC, which owned British Lion, because it would make available ‘substantial private finance [that] should have a stimulating effect on future independent production’.24 Box agreed to operate British Lion ‘as an independent force’, declaring that he would produce twelve films a year. He argued that his joint ownership of British Lion and London Weekday television would create a media company whose size would make it a genuine counterweight to the Big Two and the Big Four. He planned to use the backlog of British Lion films as a powerful bargaining counter in establishing his presence in television and to screen any British Lion films that had been denied circuit exhibition ‘in open competition with the circuit which refused them’. This merging of film and television interests would stimulate investment once backers realised that their financial risk was being halved and the turnover doubled.25
Although Box had an agreement that British Lion was his, when the news of the sale leaked out, it provoked such a furore within the industry and in Parliament that the Government backtracked, announcing that any sale would be made in open competition. The ‘winner’, announced in March 1964, was a consortium led by Michael Balcon.26 There was little to choose between the bids, but Box’s was tainted by the persistent rumour (completely untrue) that he was acting secretly on behalf of the Rank Organisation intent on strangling competition by acquiring a potential rival. As Balcon was to admit in his autobiography, his consortium signally failed to deliver its production programme of between ten and fifteen films a year (Balcon, 1969: 206-08). Box may well have achieved far more.
Undismayed, Box set up a new group of thirteen companies in December 1964 known as the National Film Corporation, backed by the Greek shipping magnates Stavros Niarchos and George Livanos, which announced a major production and distribution programme.27 In addition, Box still entertained plans to create an independent television station run by ‘creative people’ when the present ITV contracts expired in 1967. However, both projects were stillborn and after a severe heart attack in early 1967, he resigned from all his companies, and moved to Australia with his mistress, Sylvia Knowles, whom he married in May 1969 after the divorce from Muriel was completed. He continued to write both plays and novels in retirement, until his death in 1983.
Assessing a Producer’s Achievement Box’s chequered and shifting career mirrored the huge changes that the British film industry underwent as it altered from a supply-led to a demand-led cinema, occasioning a decisive shift in power from producers to distributors and exhibitors. To have continued in production throughout this period is a testimony to his survival skills and adaptability, but also to the necessity of understanding the producer’s role within a specific historical context. However, in conclusion I wish to reflect on another reason why producers have yet to receive their full recognition: the problems of assessing their achievement. An obvious starting point is to identify the thematic and stylistic ‘signature’ of the auteur in the body of films for which Box was responsible. However, both thematically and visually, Box’s films are very mixed, not only because he was concerned to develop a varied programme, but because he was always prepared to allow individual writers and directors a wide degree of creative control over specific films. It is therefore not possible to abstract from the Box oeuvre a coherent ideology of the sort that characterises Michael Balcon’s at Ealing. What one can legitimately argue is that although there may have been elements of the ‘sausage machine’ at Gainsborough as Box’s detractors claimed, many films demonstrated a marked degree of cultural aspiration. Whatever the faults of Christopher Columbus and The Bad Lord Byron, both were intellectually ambitious in their approach to the complex problems of historical biography. As a whole, the majority of Box’s films reveal a persistent attempt to lead public taste as well as show a profit. This, it will be recalled, was his definition of the ideal producer.
However, as Vincent Porter has suggested, rather than look for a producer’s signature on individual films, analysis should be focused on the longer term interrelationship between four key factors: his or her estimation of public taste, the ability to obtain adequate production finance, an understanding of who to use in the key creative roles and on what terms, and the effectiveness of the overall control of the production process (Porter, 1983: 179-80). Beyond the merits of any particular film, a consideration of that interrelationship allows one to appreciate the remarkable success he achieved at Verity and Gainsborough where his overall control is very evident. At Verity he created from scratch an organisation capable of making over 100 short films during the war, which employed over forty people and which made a substantial contribution to the Government’s propaganda effort. Verity’s films often demonstrate an imaginative creativity in the ways in which commissions were handled to communicate effectively with the target group. At Gainsborough he achieved his aim of producing twelve films a year, which meant not only a steady supply of British films during a production crisis, but full employment for the studio staff. It was a triumph of cost-effective rational planning that offered a viable model for a profitable domestic film industry that could deliver a range of different types of film on a regular basis.
In both instances Box’s capacity to control costs was less notable than his ability to manage, and often inspire, others to give of their best. Many people who played a significant role in the post-war British film industry - including Betty Box, Peter Rogers, Ralph and Gerald Thomas, Ken Annakin, Compton Bennett, Antony Darnborough and Jan Read - all owed their opportunity to Box. He was also, like many of the Hollywood moguls, extremely protective of his family’s interests. He always backed his wife Muriel as a director despite opposition, and supported projects with which she strongly identified - Too Young to Love (1960)or Rattle of a Simple Man (1965)- even if they were never likely to be profitable. When his sister’s career was flagging in the mid-Sixties, he set up Deadlier than the Male (1966), a sub-Bond spy thriller, which she produced and Ralph Thomas directed. Those outside his family whom Box helped remained sensible of their debt. The most eloquent was David Deutsch who celebrated ‘the complete impresario’ always capable of ‘providing the right environment for creative people to work, welcoming, encouraging, and subtly influencing’.28 This tribute acts as a reminder that a producer’s achievement often resides in a corpus of creative people rather than a body of films.
Deutsch also noted that Box’s mark on the British film industry might have been greater but for the crippling effects of ill health at crucial moments in his career. This brings us to the most intangible and problematic aspect of Box’s achievement: the ‘might have beens’. These include not simply the numerous aborted individual projects, but also the discontinued organisations, Sydney Box Associates and London Independent Television Producers, and the failed bids for British Lion and the London Weekday franchise. SBA showed every sign of working effectively and could well have had a major impact on British cinema had Box’s own health held up. The bids for BL and LWT had the potential to transform the film and television industries, especially if both had been successful and a genuine ‘third force’ created. Those who were intimately involved in these projects recall the intense pleasure that Box derived from making the deal almost irrespective of the outcome, far more so than from the day-to-day running of an organisation.29 This drive underpinned his whole career from his earliest days at Verity. Perhaps it is therefore also right to celebrate the skill and imagination with which he organised disparate elements into a coherent and plausible package, the shrewd inventiveness of what one might call his mercatorial vision. In the final analysis, what characterises both Box’s successes and failures is a willingness to trust creative talent and the attempt to forge the conditions under which that creativity could flourish with a high degree of autonomy. This quality is, perhaps, the hallmark of the ideal producer.
Notes 1. Sydney Box, ‘Sadism - It Will Only Bring Us Disrepute’, Kinematograph
Weekly, 27 May 1948, p. 18.
2. Kinematograph Weekly, 14 January 1943, p. 131.
3. The Muriel and Sydney Box Collection, Boxes 7-10, Diaries 1943-65, entry for 9
May 1943. Hereinafter cited in the text as Diaries.
4. Diaries, 22 January 1945; for Mason’s popularity see Spicer (2001), p. 94.
5. Kinematograph Weekly, 20 December 1945, p. 51.
6. The Spectator, 5 April 1946.
7. Simon Harcourt-Smith (1946), ‘A British Producer Gets a New Deal’, Picture Post,
13 April 1946, pp. 26-27.
8. Sydney Box (1945), ‘My Plan for Finding Film Talent’, Kinematograph Weekly, 20
December 1945, p. 211.
9. Kinematograph Weekly, 20 December 1945, p. 203.
10. Box, quoted in Anon. (1947), ‘The evolution of a feature film’, in John Cross and
Arnold Rattenbury (eds), p. 11.
11. ‘Report on Production and Future Planning’, dated June 1947; Muriel and Sydney
Box Collection, item 12.1
12. Quoted in Brenda Cross (1947), ‘Sydney Box - Producer’, Picturegoer, 12 April
1947, pp. 6-7.
13. Figures derived from The British Film Academy (?1950), The Film Industry in
Great Britain, London: BFA/Frederick Kahn, pp. 9-10.
14. Box (1947), ‘Report on Production and Future Planning’.
15. Anon. (1947), ‘The evolution of a feature film’, p. 17.
16. Film Industry, May 1948, pp. 4-5. The Company of Youth gave their first
opportunity to numerous actors including Diana Dors, Joan Greenwood and Maxwell
17. Film Industry, 15 July 1948, p. 5.
18. John Barber (1948), ‘Sydney Box: How He Got to the Top’, Leader Magazine,
May 1948, pp. 14-15. ‘Mercatorial’ is the now rare form of mercantile.
19. Diaries, 15 January 1958; 11 February 1958.
20. See Kinematograph Weekly, 4 December 1958, p. 7.
21. Daily Mail, 20 November 1958, p. 3; Kinematograph Weekly, 13 August 1959,
22. Evening News, 15 August 1959.
23. Diaries, 23 October 1959; Lifting the Lid, p. 202.
24. Observer, 5 December 1963.
25. John Terry, Managing Director of the NFFC, quoted in ‘Renewed Effort to Stop
British Lion Sale’, The Times, 31 December 1963, p. 10.
26. Reported in the Daily Cinema, 8-9 January 1964, pp. 3, 10.
27. The best overview account is Bernard Husra (1964), ‘Patterns of Power’, Films
and Filming, April 1964, pp. 49-56.
28. Kinematograph Weekly, 10 December 1964, p. 3.
29. Screen International, 4 June 1983, p. 4.
30. Author’s interview with Bill Gell, Managing Director of Monarch Films and a
number of other SBA companies, July 2003.
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Author Biography Dr Andrew Spicer is Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture at the Faculty of Art, Media and Design, University of the West of England and Programme Leader MA Film Studies and European Cinema. He has published widely on British cinema, including Typical Men: The Representation of Masculinity in Popular British Cinema (I.B. Tauris 2001), and is the author of Film Noir (Longman, 2002). He is currently completing a study of Sydney Box for the ‘British Film Makers’ series, and a critical edition of Box’s autobiography, both to be published by Manchester University Press.
Contact address: Faculty of Art, Media and Design, University of the West of England, Bower Ashton Campus, Clanage Road, BRISTOL BS3 2JT.