CAST & CREW INTERVIEWS
LEN HARRIS - CAMERA OPERATOR
Adapted from an interview conducted by Dave Jones and transcribed by Simon Coward, with their kind permission.
DAVE JONES: It's a great pleasure to introduce our guest tonight. I'm sure you're going to have an enjoyable time listening to Mr. Len Harris. Len, thank you very much for agreeing to come and be our guest at Portmeirion this year.
LEN HARRIS: Thank you very much for asking me and thank you for the reception - I didn't think I was that good! It's very nice to see you all and I hope I can answer some of your questions.
DJ: Can you tell me how you got into the film business?
LH: I always wanted to be in the film business, I always wanted to work a camera. I was a keen amateur when I was a kid. I was given a toy projector and I developed a love for it, really. Strangely enough the old acetate film, the highly inflammable film, was a smell that I loved all my life and I've smelt that all over Europe. In the acetate days, you go into a studio in France or Germany, you get this smell of acetate film and I found it most exciting. I always wanted to be in it, and I made my first film when I was about fourteen on the old 9.5mm gauge and I saved up my money to have a pro-jector when I was at school so I could shoot films in the holidays. Then I was lucky enough to get some sort of training run by the British Cinematograph Society at the London Polytechnic.
DJ: I wonder if you could mention a few films that we might know that you worked on and shot prior to "The Prisoner"?
LH: When I started I was
at Lime Grove, the Gaumont-British studio. They were doing Hitchcock's "The
Man Who Knew Too Much" and "The Thirty-Nine Steps" followed soon
after. I worked a little bit on the floor in "The Thirty-Nine Steps".
Occasionally I was loading up film - not an exciting job, but at least I was
there, and I worshipped Hitchcock. I thought he was a great director, although
I didn't know him personally. And I was sent on the floor of his set, late one
night (we used to work all sorts of hours) and he looked at me and suddenly
said: "What are you doing on my set?" Well, I didn't mind that, really.
I said "I've been sent on to help out." "Oh," he said, but
I didn't mind that - he was always a bit aggressive. But the great man had noticed
me, he'd spoken to me, and I had spoken to Alfred Hitchcock. And in those days,
I was a youngster, about 18, it was a great thing.
DJ: So you carried on working throughout the war years?
LH: Well, the war came
along, and by that time I'd gone over to Gainsborough at Islington studio, which
was the same company as Gaumont-British Lime Grove - an amalgamated company.
By that time, Lime Grove had stopped film production and the only production
we were doing was at Gainsborough, Islington. Well we went to this better studio,
this newer studio, and were doing "The Band Wagon" with Arthur Askey.
I remember it was a Sunday morning, September 3rd, [when war was declared] and
we were shooting at Islington with Arthur Askey and I can't remember exactly
what we were shooting, I think it was a bed scene where he and the other chap
are in bed and the rat comes through - it was a comedy scene - and everyone
knew that war was about to be declared. Anyway, I went home and I got a phone
call to go back to Lime Grove and the picture was resumed in Lime Grove and
they carried on right through the war. I carried on until I was called up and
they still kept going while I was called up. I was surprised about that but
they did and the last one I did was with Will Fyffe and he was a ship's captain
[probably "Neutral Port" - SC]. Then I went into the army, in the
infantry and I was a number then, I wasn't a name, I was a number and I know
just what it's like. They didn't want to know anything about my past, they didn't
pump me for information at all. And after a time, they formed the Army Film
and Photographic Unit and I was sent quite quickly into the Army Film Unit which
I stayed in for the rest of the war.
I think the Army Film Unit did a jolly good job, personally. Some of the people took great risks to get their pictures and so did some of the war correspondents like Sid Bonnet and people like that who worked for Gaumont-British News. They really went out in the middle of it all and took these wonderful shots of fighting and that sort of thing. Their material and ours was passed on to the War Office and they would use what they required and the Newsreels would also use the stuff after it was censored.
DJ: After you came out of the Army Film Unit you went to work in television at some point. Could you tell us where you first met Patrick McGoohan and how you came to work for him?
LH: Well, I first met him at Elstree on "Danger Man" when I did some scenes at Elstree, filling in, and I did quite a few scenes with him, but never a whole picture. And then I didn't really think any more about it until I got the call to come up here [to Portmeirion] for a month [in 1966]. There were four camera units, four production units, assistant directors, about two sound units and actors coming up for a few days and they'd go back as they were finished there. Patrick knew, it was all in his mind, how the stuff was going to be used - not too many other people knew that. They knew that he knew there were some scripts about not always entirely complete, but you gleaned what you could from them. But pretty well all the arrangements were in his mind.
DJ: You mentioned that there were four crews that came up to Portmeirion. Could you tell us, what comprised a crew of people?
LH: We had four camera
crews, there was myself, an assistant who's focussing, another assistant - load
clappers as they call them now - and a grip, and we had four of those. Brendan
J. Stafford was the director of photography and Jack Lowin was the other - he
was engaged for the whole series and I forget who was with him. I've been trying
to remember who the other operators were and I'm darned if I can. It was a long
time ago, twenty-five years, and its amazing after all this time that people
are still interested and enthusiastic about the series. And it reminded me -
and most people will tell you - well we couldn't really understand it, what
was it all about? Well I couldn't tell you what it was about any more than anyone.
I have my own theories, everyone makes their own theories if you like to think
about it, but I did think it was rather like in the early silent days when there
was a famous German picture called "The Cabinet of Dr Caligari". Some
of you might have seen it or heard of it - it's repeated often in the arts cinemas
on a Sunday night or at film society shows. It got everybody talking because
they were all wondering what it was about. Nobody could understand completely
what it was meant to tell you, but they were all absorbed by it.
It struck me that "The Prisoner" was a little bit like that. And I remember a famous writer at the time, a man named Paul Rotha who wrote news-paper articles about film production. He said that this picture ["The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari"] was like a glass of red wine in an ocean of salt water, and I got to thinking, "The Prisoner" is a bit like that - a glass of red wine in an ocean of salt water, when you come to think of it - because it's so far, in quality, above most of the other stuff.
DJ: When you were making "The Prisoner", were you aware of any differences between the fact that you were shooting a TV series as opposed to a film, or did they have the same production values on this particular series as a film?
LH: They tried to maintain the same production values as a feature film, but of course nearly all television is a bit rushed and scrambled, you see, so I suppose we were aware it wasn't quite up to what would normally be done. You didn't have to time to spend on it that you would have on a feature film. But generally speaking, the various technicians engaged and the artists, and of course, the directors, they tried to keep it to a good feature film standard and I think it paid off really.
DJ: Did you think that the people making it and in charge realised that they were making a prestige thing or was it just another programme like "Danger Man"?
LH: No, I should think really that the people, and I don't mean Patrick McGoohan, but the people responsible for financing it, just thought they were making a good series. They didn't realise that it was of quite the status that it was. And it was really, very largely, up to Patrick McGoohan, who wouldn't settle for any second best thing - it had to be first class, you know - that it really survived like it did.
DJ: You were telling me earlier on that you worked on the opening sequence and you told me something interesting about the way the sequence was shot ...
LH: Yes, after I'd finished
the four weeks up here [Portmeirion] I went back and I was on another picture
- I can't remember what it was now, off hand - and I got a message from the
production manager, Bernard Williams. Would I come up [to MGM Borehamwood] for
a few days to do some shooting? He didn't tell me what it was.
I went up there and they were doing this sequence where they pump gas into his room and he's packing his bag and it gradually gasses him, and they were doing that a bit at a time - when they could take him off the other set and do a bit of this scene and then he'd go back again on to the other set. I think the whole of that sequence was done just when it could be fitted in. Then I didn't come back again on the series until after he'd gone to America to do a picture ["Ice Station Zebra" -RD] and I came back to do the last four.
AUDIENCE: I understand you worked on the final episode, "Fall Out", and I wondered as a cameraman and observer what you thought of what was going on?
LH: I might tell you, I
think you'll notice that there are two cameramen or two operators credited on
the final episode - the reason being that they had to do quite a few more scenes
of "The Girl Who Was Death", so I was taken off the final episode
and put on "The Girl Who Was Death" to finish these scenes. They brought
another operator in to take my place on the final episode but every now and
again I would go back and do a bit more on the final episode. The final episode
is pretty confusing as you can see. What with going and coming, I was in a real
right state and my blood pressure was pretty bad at the time so I wasn't at
all well. That didn't really help, but I can't blame them for that.
So we all wondered how it was going to end. And you'd ask Patrick how it was going to end and he'd laugh and say "You wait and see". That's as far as he'd go, and they wouldn't say anything to the press or anything like that, so we just waited to see. I don't know what I thought about the final episode, I'd have liked something a bit more definite, I feel, although a lot of people think that's the way it should be. I don't know, really - I have mixed feelings about that.
DJ: While we're talking about "Fall Out", there was one particular sequence that gave you a lot of trouble, the "Dem Bones" sequence?
LH: It got a bit chaotic, I can tell you, and the actor, Alexis Kanner, he wanted to really go to town and he ran up over a big plaster boulder. So I said to Patrick: "I can't miss [shooting] the spot [light rail] round all the light". Patrick didn't seem to mind that - he said that it fitted in with what was going on, the madness of the scene, really - but anyhow we did get Alexis to modify it a bit. Even so, when we did the next take he did this running up and I think I couldn't see the lights but I could see the spot rail so I said to Patrick: "I'm sorry, but I can't miss it" and he said "Don't worry, it's all right, that's all in", so I'm afraid it's there with Alexis Kanner running over the thing and there's a spot rail up there while everything's going on. They seemed quite happy about it, but I wasn't very happy.
DJ: Talking about things appearing that shouldn't appear - not in "The Prisoner" - and that's boom mikes dropping into the shot on various programmes. Perhaps you can explain that ...
LH: Well, when CinemaScope came in, that was a bit expensive, but they developed this other thing - wide screen as they liked to call it. Wide screen showed you less, really - they cut off the top and bottom of the picture. In your view-finder you'd have your various degrees of the wide screen - 1:1.85, 1:1.75 and 1:1.65. Now, the theory being that the pictures would be projected at the cinema - 1:1.85 mostly - producers were saying that if the microphone drops into picture in that area which you're not going to see, let them do it.
I can tell you that no microphones come into any picture that I've shot, but in some pictures it would be allowed on the theory that it wouldn't be projected in the cinema. When they come up on TV, you can see the boom coming in and then swinging over to one side when the artist there is going to speak. So it anticipates the artists' moves and you can watch all this - it's quite fun, but I think it's bad technique. If you do see a microphone in a picture in the top of the frame, the chances are that it's not the cameraman's fault, it's just something the producers have said to him.
DJ: One of the episodes that you worked on most was "The Girl Who Was Death". There was an incident concerning a black and white photograph of a lighthouse. Perhaps you could tell us about that?
LH: I don't know if any of you have noticed this, particularly, in "The Girl Who Was Death". A sequence was shot at the lighthouse down in Beachy Head. A part of that lighthouse was built in the studio - very good it was - and they had taken all the sizes from a black and white photograph. And they'd done all the sequences and we get to the bit where he waves to them from the boat, and when we got to Beachy Head I looked at the lighthouse and thought "They've got a red band by the door" and we'd got a grey or a black one in the studio - because no one had realised that when they took the photo that the red would come out as a sort of grey colour. But I don't think anyone noticed.
DJ: You worked with Alexis Kanner in that episode as well, as with "Living In Harmony", and you had a bit of an uncomfortable time with a scene in that one, didn't you?
LH: Yes, that's right.
There was a lot of this hand-held camera stuff going on and I had a small Arriflex
camera and we'd done the shot of Kathy being strangled and then comes the close-up
shot of Kanner strangling her. So I'm here and he's put his hands up round my
neck, you see, and he got carried away. So I'm trying to get a close-up of him
and he's really going to town and I'm thinking "I hope I'm going to survive"
but afterwards he was very apologetic and said "I think I got carried away
there". But he really lived the part.
DJ: You were actually in the car on the roller coaster in "The Girl Who Was Death" with Kanner throwing himself around then too ...
LH: Well, I had to admire him for this, because I expect most of you have at some time been on a scenic railway and the one at Southend was quite a one, you know. He has an uncredited part in this one where he has to play a part on the front of the switchback. All he really had to do was lean about a bit and do something a bit funny, but not Alexis - he gets carried away, as I've told you, and he's jumping about in this thing, standing up, leaning over, and this thing's going round and round at a hell of a rate. Now I was feeling uncomfortable, I had the camera well tied down, well fixed down, because the wind pressure was quite something, and I was feeling the wind against my head because I had to sit up a bit - not too high, because there were things over the top of the switchback - but he was doing all the stunting and he could have come off the top of that as easy as anything. When it came round the bend he could have easily been thrown off. He gets carried away, as I can tell you. Looked very good, but it might have been the end of him!
DJ: Did you actually have your eye to the lens on this thing as it was going round?
LH: I had one hand on something pretty firm where the camera was and my assistant was sitting in the seat beside me and he had his arms round me. On the Arriflex camera, you can put your eye up against it or there's a little lever on the side that you can close to stop any light getting through. So, I kept my eye there when I could, but when I began to rock too much I'd put the flap over so I didn't get my eye knocked out.
DJ: It must have been terrifying!
LH: Well, it was uncomfortable, but I had to do the back-projection plates. Incidentally, Patrick did some stuff on that, you know, he climbed over the seats and all that kind of thing. But we did some of the close-ups in the studio and I had to get the plates for that and get a rigger to come out and really make sure that the camera was tied down, because there's quite a wind-lash there with the speed the thing's going.
DJ: You've had quite an uncomfortable time as a cameraman, haven't you?
LH: I didn't mind losing
me, but I didn't want to lose the camera!
DJ: You were nearly hung in "Living In Harmony"?
LH: That's another one where they had a bit of this hand-held stuff. And they had to hang the Patrick McGoohan character and the stuntmen were the cowboys. And they picked me up as I came out of the jailhouse, I think it was. They lifted me up and put this rope round my neck and round the camera and they carried me over to the horse, shoved me on the horse and gave the horse a pat on the back so it moved. Someone was holding the front of it so it didn't get very far, only a couple of steps, good enough to cut in some longer shots with me on the back. So, I might have been hung in that, although it was quite safe really! They were pretty good stuntmen, they knew what they were doing.
You can rely on these stuntmen, they're very professional. They will tell you, most stuntmen: "There's no risk in our job because it's all worked out, we know what we're doing, we're very professional". And that's quite true, but some-times they do stunts which I think are still very risky. But they don't seem to bother, they take it as a matter of course when they jump off buildings and things.
AUDIENCE: On a non-technical level, is there any episode that you worked on that you're particularly fond of?
LH: As I like Westerns, I rather liked working on "Living In Harmony". I liked the cowboy stuff, and Patrick made an excellent cowboy.
AUDIENCE: It was about a five-week shoot wasn't it?
LH: Oh no, it was just a normal ten-day shooting - including location just north of Borehamwood in Dunstable. One of the actors there who had a small part as one of the cowboys was an American, and he said: "Have you noticed? I come from Utah, and this looks just like Utah". I'd never been to Utah, but I took his word for it, so I think it was all convincing. I liked that one. Also, I liked "The Girl Who Was Death". There's a bit of comedy in that and I think that it was good, I enjoyed it. And I always think - I don't know if it's in the final picture - but one thing that struck me as funny is when he goes in the record shop and he's supposed to go in this soundproof recording place and he puts through where the glass was [supposed to be] to undo the latch outside, which struck me as awfully funny. I don't know if they used it in the final print or whether they did another take, I can't quite remember. But he used to do a lot of little things like that, especially in rehearsal.
AUDIENCE: I was just interested to know that if things on the set were going wrong from an actor's point of view, did you feel the pressure through the lens?
LH: No I don't think so,
he was pretty good. He wouldn't pass on the pressure to you. We had pretty good
actors on it. Not like some directors who will pass on any pressure to you.
I can think of another director, a pretty good one, he would never say anything
much to an artist, but he'd come round on me very often. He'd say "Cut
it - that was no good for you, was it, Len?" in the middle of a shot, and
I'd say "Yes that's all right, what's wrong?" and he'd say "That
couldn't have been any good, because he wasn't opening his mouth properly"
and I'd say "It looks all right". "No, no, we've got to go again".
Now he'd go over to an artist and say something, in her ear more or less, "You've
got to put more oomph into it" or whatever it is. So really, I cottoned
on to this after a time - that it was the artist, he didn't want to tick them
off. He'd rather pretend to take it out on me. McGoohan never did anything like
that. He would never pass it on to you. If he didn't like what you were doing,
he would say so. He wouldn't make a thing to show them up in front of everybody
but he wouldn't take it out on anyone else.
I'll tell you a funny thing that happened, in Harmony. The joke was on me, really. I don't know if you know a Mitchell camera or viewfinder camera - the parallax adjustment, the view-finder, moves with the focus, you see, so that if you focus on something very close, the viewfinder comes right out. Now if something goes on over here [out of shot] you don't see it through your lens, but if you keep one eye open you could see it happening and usually, if an artist has got to do something, you try and arrange that they're on the right mark - they usually are - so it all works out. I'm not going to say this is a big dramatic problem, but this leads up to what I was going to tell you. We had this shot, I can't remember who exactly the artist was, we were outside the barn on the lot, and he [PMcG] suddenly shouted out: "Did you see that mike shadow, Len?" And I'm close-focussed on this man and the viewfinder's out like this, so I said: "No." So after we'd done this shot he said "Are you sure you didn't see the microphone shadow?" So I said, "No, no, it was all right." So he said "Well, I think we'd better have another take, but I'll print that one". So he did do another take which was perfectly all right, but he printed up the one in which I hadn't seen the mike shot. And there was a great big mike shadow with a boom! He's saying "Do you see that mike shadow?" and I'm saying "No, no" and you couldn't miss it! This sort of thing doesn't happen very often, but it can happen.
DJ: We're coming to the end of this interview now. When you look back on "The Prisoner", do you look back with pride? Do you think it's one of the best things you've done, or was it just another job?
LH: I can look back and
think it was a well-made series and it does arouse a certain amount of interest.
If you tell anyone you worked on it, it seems to impress them. But I liked working
with Patrick McGoohan - I think it was a great loss to the British film industry
[him] going back to America. I have a new neighbour who's from Birmingham and
I happened to mention him [PMcG] and they said "Oh, we knew him when he
was in Birmingham Rep". So that must have been some time ago. But he'd
worked over here for years and he was a man with so much energy and so creative
- he was a great loss. He knows what it's all about and he's a good talker to
get people to put money up. It's a great loss that he's gone from us.
I worked with him some years later. I did a "second unit" down in Dorset for "The Man In The Iron Mask". We had a chance to chat quite a bit and there's no doubt about it, he was very proud of "The Prisoner". He'd often come over and have little talks about something that happened and he was quite rightly very proud of it. And he was telling me then what a big cult following it has, especially in America and Canada and all over the world. But you know more about that than I do!
DJ: Did you find that people in the industry were impressed when you said you'd worked on "The Prisoner"?
LH: Yes, I think they were, and you get the same old question: "Well, what was it all about?"
AUDIENCE: You mentioned the episodes you enjoyed working on. Were there any you didn't enjoy working on?
LH: No, not really. That last one was a bit hectic, I can't say it was a great pleasure to work on, but it wasn't all that bad. I had blood pressure trouble at that time which made it worse for me but I can't say it was bad. I don't know how the artists managed it. Anything the artists are doing on set that requires a guide [sound]track, they'd recorded this first of all, this music. Now they'll play that back on the set for the artists and they all do their actions - the dancing and the singing - to that and we record at the same time a guide track, so when the picture's cut they use the original. Now I'm not going to say they don't, or can't, record some more, afterwards, but that's not the normal practice, you see. It always means that the soundtrack has to be played at a very high level, it's better for the artists - they can follow it more and act to it more - but it becomes a bit irritating for everyone else. But obviously you've got to do it. This goes on and on and they're all dancing and shouting and throwing their arms up and they must have been exhausted. Real hard work! I don't know if they paid them extra, but it went on for several days with one or two cameras on it. And what with the other chap running all over the set! Chaotic, but still ...
DJ: Any more questions? No? Well, I'd like to thank you Len, for coming and giving us the interview and I'm sure everyone's enjoyed it.
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