Our latest blog from a stipend holder is from Paul Moody at Brunel University who has been exploring our production archives of the films of Don Boyd and Gavrik Losey, two of Britain's most significant producers, to discover the story of EMI Films.
Electrical and Music Industries Ltd, more commonly known as EMI, is probably not the first name that springs to mind when one thinks about British cinema’s rich history. Ealing, Rank, Gainsborough and Hammer are more likely to be recalled, and each one of these names evokes specific notions of ‘Britishness’ that have become well-known clichés of aspects of the ‘national character’.
It would be unsurprising therefore, if EMI Films had been a small-scale operation that lasted only a few years. Yet the opposite is true; it was one of the largest British film companies of all time, one of only two major British studios throughout the seventies and eighties (along with Rank) and was resident at one of the nation’s most beloved film studios, Elstree. EMI’s sheer size and importance to the British film industry during this period, raises questions about its omission from most published histories of British cinema, and what this elision says about the creation of national ‘canons’.
These questions form the premise of my upcoming book, EMI Films and the Limits of British Cinema, the first book-length study of the company, its films, and its importance to British film history and wider British culture in the seventies and eighties. It is a project that began roughly three years ago, and which has taken me to both national and international archives, from the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles (to research the private papers of EMI’s first Head of Film Production, the actor-director Bryan Forbes), through to the British Board of Film Classification in London. The final leg of this journey was a visit to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in June 2018, as part of its visiting researcher stipend scheme.
The museum holds two special collections that are of great interest to my project; the papers of Don Boyd and Gavrik Losey. Their work has been written about at length before, but this normally focuses on the many successes that they were involved with, such as Boyd’s Scum (Alan Clarke, 1979) and Losey's Babylon (Franco Rosso, 1979). However, what makes their work for EMI especially interesting, is that they were involved in two of EMI’s biggest disasters; for Losey, Trick or Treat? (Michael Apted, 1976) and for Boyd, Honky Tonk Freeway (John Schlesinger, 1980).
But let’s start with the positives; Losey first encountered EMI in the early seventies, working as production supervisor on Michael Tuchner’s thrillers Villain (1971) and Fear is the Key (1972). The museum holds Losey’s production accounts for Villain (BDC 6/1/22) and more detailed production reports for Fear is the Key, which reveal the extent of planning that went in to the film’s set-piece car chase (which lasts on screen for almost fifteen minutes), including arranging with the Louisiana State police force to secure the requisite number of police cars and off duty policemen for the shoot (BDC 6/1/6/8). There is also a nice human touch, with a birthday card signed by the crew, depicting Losey on the front hanging from the side of a building, holding onto a key that says ‘fear’ on it, and his ankles chained to weights labelled ‘production budget’ (BDC 6/1/6/6).
Gavrik Losey Birthday card from the crew of Fear is the Key.
These happy memories would be replicated in Losey’s work as associate producer on the enormous British success That’ll be the Day (Claude Whatham, 1973), which starred a new young popstar called David Essex, and that film’s sequel, Stardust (1974), with Essex appearing more jaded after his character’s exploits in the first film. The files at the BDCM show just how successful the film was, making a profit of over £529,000, and it was one of the highest grossing films in the UK that year (BDC 6/1/19). However, it also reveals that in the US, it did not fare as well, making only £185,000. When compared to another EMI film released that year, Murder on the Orient Express (1974, Sidney Lumet), which was a major international success, Stardust feels very parochial in comparison, and the dawning realisation of this at the top of EMI led to a significant shift in its production policy over the next few years.
David Essex and Rosalind Ayres in That'll be the Day (Claude Whatham, 1973)
That a new approach was needed would be confirmed to the EMI hierarchy by Losey’s next production for the company, or at least, attempted production – the disastrous Trick or Treat?, which as the BDC archives show, was abandoned after a few weeks of shooting having cost EMI over £150,000 (BDC 6/3/1/3). The BDC archives depict the fraught production, especially the struggles between the director, Michael Apted, and its main star, Bianca Jagger. There were also rumours published in The Daily Mirror and retained in the collection which allege that the production ran into trouble with the authorities in Rome (BDC 6/3/1/3); although when I spoke to Losey about this over the phone, he quashed these reports as mere publicity wheezes.
It was this film and the financial imperatives highlighted by Stardust which explains in part EMI’s ambiguous relationship with British cinema. For these productions made plain that the real money was to be had in ‘American’ filmmaking, and within a year of Trick or Treat’s failure EMI would appoint a new team to head up its film division, Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley, both poached from British Lion. Their approach was to co-fund each project with a major US studio, and they produced for audiences what looked like ‘American’ films – for example, they were responsible for the Oscar winning The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), and several cult classics like The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978).
The success of their output (both critically and commercially) meant that by 1980, when presented with Don Boyd’s treatment for a satirical approach to the US obsession with the motorcar, Honky Tonk Freeway, they didn’t bat an eyelid at providing the film with a $20m budget. For comparison, Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981) cost just $18m and made over $220m in the US alone; Honky Tonk made barely over $2m and became one of the biggest flops of all time.
There are 36 items in Boyd’s papers at the BDCM which relate to this film, including all of Boyd’s correspondence with EMI regarding the production (BDC2/101), the EMI production file for the film (BDC2/633), post-production documents (BDC2/1161) and financial records (BDC2/1165 & BDC2/1167). It shows in detail how a film that Boyd had envisioned as a relatively small-scale character driven piece, gradually became inflated by EMI’s grand plans for its share of the international film market. It also highlights the ongoing conversations between Boyd and the film’s scriptwriter, Ed Clinton, who were trying desperately to retain control of the film.
Don Boyd on the set of Honky Tonk Freeway (top)
With John Schlesinger (left) filming Honky Tonk Freeway
Publicity photographs by Peter Sobel
These papers and others at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum are instructive in terms of how a British film company rapidly came to dominate the British film industry, and almost did the same in Hollywood. Ultimately, like many companies before it, EMI took one risk too many, and gambled too much on one production. British cinema history normally focuses on a small selection of acknowledged ‘successes’, but these papers reveal a fascinating insight into two of the British film industry’s biggest failures, by two of its greatest ever independent producers, and tell us a lot about the cultural conventions that decide who or what can become part of the official ‘canon’.
The Elephant featured in Honky Tonk Freeway. Don Boyd on far left with John Schlesinger 2nd left. Publicity Photograph by Peter Sobel.
Paul Moody is a Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at Brunel University London and his book, EMI Films and the Limits of British Cinema, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in October 2018.
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