David A. Ellis talks to two legendary script supervisors.
Many people when watching a film don’t give a thought to all the hard work involved in bringing the movie to the screen. One job that rarely attracts attention is continuity. Part of the job of the continuity person, or script supervisor, is to make sure everything in the scene remains the same throughout the various set-ups taken at different times. A scene may take hours or days to shoot, with several camera angles used, and it is the job of continuity to make sure an actor’s hair and attire remain the same as well as anything else that is visible on the screen. It is a very responsible job and before Polaroid cameras and video assist, the continuity person had to make many notes and sketches. Since DVDs became popular some people watch films over again and can play scenes in slow motion and freeze frames. So after a few plays any continuity errors, such as long shot, person wears tie, close up, tie is missing, can become noticeable.
Angela Allen and Pamela Mann Francis are two notable script supervisors who have worked on many top features. Francis was known as Pamela Mann before marrying notable cinematographer and director Freddie Francis (1917-2007). Allen born in 1929 has worked on many memorable films including The Third Man (1949), The African Queen (1951) and Women in Love (1969), directed by Ken Russell (1927-2011).
ANGELA ALLEN was born in Maida Vale, London and after leaving school went to work for a theatrical agency. She originally wanted to work in the make up department but in those days a requirement of the job was that you had to draw and she says she was no good at that.
“I’d heard of continuity and I thought I’ll do that,” says Allen. “I’d learned shorthand typing, which was required for the job and started knocking on doors. My first job in that capacity was at Isleworth Studios at the age of eighteen. My first film as assistant continuity girl was Night Beat (1947) directed by Harold Huth [1882-1967]. This was followed by Mine own Executioner (1947), directed by Anthony Kimmins [1901-1964]. I was also an assistant on Bonnie Prince Charlie , also directed by Kimmins, but finished the picture as continuity girl because the lady left to get married.”
Allen worked uncredited on the second unit of The Third Man, working on the sewer unit. Some of the sewer scenes were sets back in the studio. Assistant director Guy Hamilton was the one responsible for the famous zither music in the film. He had heard it being played in a bar and got the player to record it for the film. The studio didn’t want it, saying it wasn’t a proper score but the director Carol Reed (1906-1976) insisted and the rest is history. Allen says Reed was one of the best directors she ever worked for and learned a lot from him on The Third Man.
“I think he was my greatest teacher,” Allen says. “He was a brilliant technician, he knew how to make things match. You learned what you needed to look at and what you didn’t. I used to take notes to the cutting room for him and that is where I learned a great deal about how you can change things. I think he was underestimated in England and in my opinion he was as great as David Lean.”
The first feature she worked on alone was Old Mother Riley, Headmistress (1950), starring Arthur Lucan and Kitty McShane.
One of the tools of the continuity trade is the stopwatch. Allen explains why it is used.
“The stopwatch is one of the main ingredients of the job. Normally you get a script and have to time it. You haven’t seen the location or know who the actors are but you read and act it out around the house. You have to time the original script and all the versions that come after. Each has to be broken down. A progress report has to be made. This states what time the first shot was called, the lunch break and any hold-ups that occur because something broke down. When Pam Francis and I started every shot had to be typed in detail. This included what lenses were being used. You had to record when the camera started to track, when it stopped and when someone stood up. The dialogue would be typed in red and the action and descriptions in black. When I started we didn’t have the Polaroid camera, we had to draw and I was an incredibly bad artist. We got the Polaroid around 1950.”
She worked with the great director John Huston (1906-1987) on fourteen occasions. The films were The African Queen (1951), Beat the Devil (1953), Moulin Rouge (1953), Moby Dick (1956), Heaven Knows Mr Allison (1957), The Roots of Heaven (1958), The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958), The Unforgiven (1960), The Misfits (1961), Freud (1962), Night of the Iguana (1964), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Wise Blood (1979).
Producer Sam Spiegel (1901-1985) interviewed her for the job of continuity on The African Queen. He thought because she was the youngest continuity girl in the business at the time she would be able to cope with working in Africa. Asked what Huston was like to work with she says,
“John never lost his temper. On African Queen he trusted me when Katherine Hepburn argued about what she was wearing. I told her she would have to change and she said ‘No, I don’t.’ John said, ‘That’s Angies job, we will go with what she says.’ I didn’t find out for another six weeks if I’d done the right thing, which was nerve racking. Fortunately I was right. David Lean’s continuity girl Maggie Unsworth once said to me, ‘One thing you mustn’t do if they ask you a question is dither and if you make a mistake admit it.’ I’ve always thought that to be good advice.”
Talking about Huston’s Beat the Devil Allen says,
“It was fun because you never knew what the story was going to be – everyday it used to change. We used to laugh so much when Robert Morley and Peter Lorre ad libed. Humphrey Bogart wasn’t an ad libber but the others were. It was a mad film; we never knew what the story was from day to day.”
Allen received an MBE in 1996, a BFI Industry Award and the Michael Balcon Award in 2005 presented by John Huston’s daughter Anjelica.
PAMELA MANN FRANCIS was born in London and went to school in Wembley Park, leaving at sixteen. We talked about her days as a script supervisor (continuity girl). Script supervisor was the American term and later used in the UK. Angela Allen was instrumental in the term being adopted in the UK. Francis, born in 1927 said the job attracted mainly women, possibly because of the enormous amount of typing that is required. Before becoming involved in the film industry she worked in advertising and music publishing. Her debut in the film business was for the Rank Organisation at Imperial House in Regent Street, London. She then moved to the publicity department for Wessex Films based at Pinewood Studios. It was the early days of actor Dirk Bogarde, who was under contract to Wessex Films. Her first film on publicity was Derby Day (1952) directed by Herbert Wilcox (1890-1977).
She eventually became secretary to producer and director David Lean (1908-1991) Asked how this came about she says,
“I was associate producer Norman Leslie Spencer’s secretary working on scripts at the Alexander Korda organisation at 146 Piccadilly, now gone. I didn’t work for David until he left Pinewood to join Korda. The first picture I worked with him on was The Sound Barrier (1952), shot at Shepperton studios.”
Francis remembers that David Lean had a saying, “Never come out of the same hole twice,” meaning the next film should be different.
Her first outing in continuity was on Summertime (1955), directed by David Lean, taking over from Maggie Unsworth, credited Margaret Shipway, who had taken ill. On that film Francis was the producer’s secretary, production secretary and continuity person, all for the one salary and no credit. At that time she wasn’t a member of the ACT (Association of Cinematograph Technicians) but because it was a foreign based film she was allowed to do the work.
She finally got into the ACT. Angela Allen, a good friend, spoke up for Francis at the ACT saying “Pam has been in the business for many years and hasn’t done the business any harm, so let her come into the ACT.” She then worked on Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) as a production secretary, which required ACT membership. Francis says it was a real train and bridge that was blown up on the film, photographed with five cameras.
She said that Lean wanted Charles Laughton for the part of colonel Nicholson, played in the film by Alec Guinness. Laughton didn’t accept saying he wouldn’t be able to lose weight.
Francis moved on to continuity and worked on the TV series Dial 999 a co-production between Britain’s ABC and the US company Ziv starring Robert Beatty and made at Elstree studios. Early features were In the Nick (1960, directed by Ken Hughes [1922-2001]) and Let’s Get Married (1960) directed by Peter Graham Scott (1923-2007).
“I always wanted to do continuity work but it took me a long time because at that time they had unions and when I first started in the publicity department I was in NATKE (National Association of Theatrical and Kine Employees). It took me a long time to transfer to ACT, which was required for continuity.”
Asked if she had help in the job, she replies,
“No, I didn’t have an assistant, I worked on my own. As far as the second unit is concerned I didn’t usually decide who would do the continuity; that was mainly left to the office.”
Francis remembers that a saying in the industry regarding continuity errors used to be, “They will never notice in the one and nines,” (the cheap seats costing one shilling and ninepence, or nine new pence).
Did she have a favourite director? “Among my favourites is Steven Spielberg, David Lean and Karel Reisz,” she says.
The continuity person in the UK is expected to keep an eye on everything. They have to time every scene with a stopwatch, make a note of everything, including which lenses the cinematographer is using. Usually the continuity person works alone on the unit, it is a very responsible job. In the States each department takes responsibility for the continuity.
Asked which was her most challenging film she says,
“Probably Summertime, with Kate Hepburn, because I was put in at the deep end. Rushes didn’t come back for weeks in those days. In one instance Kate was wearing earrings when she left Venice and later when she arrived in Burano wasn’t. I told her she had to wear them to match continuity, which she did. I just had my doubts later. I remember being told the rushes had arrived so I rushed into the cutting room where they were being looked at on a Movieola and screaming ‘She’s not wearing them.’ The editor, Peter Taylor said, ‘What are you talking about, of course she’s wearing them.’ I was so convinced at that time she wasn’t.”
After working on Billy Liar (1963) directed by John Schlesinger (1926-2003), Francis took a break from the job, later returning to work on a few commercials, before going back into features, her first was The Empire Strikes Back (1980) directed by Irvin Kershner (1923-2010).
Francis said she didn’t have any particular favourites but among the ones she has enjoyed working on is Little Shop of Horrors (1986) directed by Frank Oz (1944-). Asked if she often worked with the same crew she said: “Not usually but I did work more than once with Douglas Slocombe, Chic Waterson and Robin Vidgeon.”
Other features include, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) directed by Karel Reisz (1926-2002), The Innocents (1961) directed by Jack Clayton (1921-1995) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) directed by Steven Spielberg (1947-). Whilst Francis’ TV work includes The Professionals and Dick Turpin.
Her last film before hanging up her stopwatch was Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), directed by Robert Zemeckis (1951-). Francis is now enjoying retirement and still keeps in touch with people from the business. An autobiography on her late husband Freddie called The Straight Story by Freddie Francis and Tony Dalton with a foreword by director David Lynch and Oswald Morris is to be published by American publisher Scarecrow Press.
David A. Ellis has written for a number of magazines and newspapers. He regularly writes for The British Cinematographer magazine and is the author of the book Conversations with Cinematographers, published by Scarecrow Press.