Friday 16 March 2018

Carrying On with The Gerald Thomas Archive

Last Wednesday I made a rather delayed trip (thank you British weather) to the British Film Institute on London's Southbank. As I've mentioned over on Twitter, the BFI hold the entire Gerald Thomas archive which is chock full of delightful artifacts from Gerald's long, varied and illustrious career in British film. I was quite frankly dazzled by the array of material on offer and have only managed to flick through a fraction of it, but this blog today is the start of several pieces looking at different aspects of what I've had the very good fortune to see.

As I arrived at the BFI Reuben Library I had no idea what to expect. I had selected a range of documentation from the archives and they had been shipped in from Hertfordshire the week before. First of all, I'm hugely indebted to Victoria, the extremely efficient, kind and helpful archivist from the British Film Institute. Without her I'd have been lost in a sea of paperwork! After I signed a few forms explaining my reasons for being there and for wanting to see Gerald's archive, I was given my first file and I was off. 

As I've been a fan of Gerald's films since I was a young boy, it was quite a moment to find myself alone with a large selection of his original papers. I studied history at University and it brought back all those days of researching in the library and soon I felt very much at home. Pretty much as when I spent the day at the British Library with Kenneth Williams' diaries back in January, it was a "pinch yourself" moment. For me it was much more about the social history aspect of the archive than the films themselves. So many years have passed and so much has changed in the way we live our lives. 

These days everything is done by email, nobody writes letters anymore or sends telegrams and phone calls are becoming increasingly rare! So much of what Gerald managed to preserve just simply wouldn't be possible in the 21st Century as methods have just changed so much. Progress I think they call it. The archive gives a real insight into the process of making films in Britain in the mid to late 20th Century. The organisation which was so essential in order to churn out a feature film in six weeks or less is clear from the paperwork, correspondence and scheduling. It really was a herculean task at times! The archive provides a little bit of everything. There's the insight into the daily grind of working at the studios, with production meeting minutes, memos and agreements - lots of legal documentation. More fascinating for me are the little personal details - handwritten notes from actors I've adored all my life recalling far off lunch parties and small favours granted; little details previously unknown, now discovered on an artist's contract and unexpectedly deep, sometimes moving human stories.

I requested two boxes of material from the making of Carry On Abroad, Carry On Doctor, Carry On Again Doctor and Carry On Behind. There was so much to take in that I plan to publish a series of blogs each looking at a different aspect and I hope you enjoy them. There will be information on one of Gerald's publicity scrapbooks, new details gleaned from drafts of some of the film scripts and a veritable treasure trove of lovely stuff from cast contracts and letters between Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas and their actors, crew and contacts. 

What struck me most about what I've seen so far is how much better I feel I've gotten to know both Peter and Gerald. Unlike their on screen talent, they can be shadowy figures and often criticised for the way they allegedly treated their actors - paying them poorly and of course, no repeat fees. However this archive shows the real human beings behind these well worn personas. The moments of kindness, the obvious love of the industry they spent so long working in and most of all, their wonderful sense of humour. 

So look out for the first in my series of special blogs on Gerald's archive coming up soon!

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