Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Jonathan Dennis Memorial Lecture 2010: Sir Jeremy Isaacs (a lecture)

Auditorium Regione, Pordenone, 7 Oct 2010

The Jonathan Dennis Memorial Lecture was given by Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the visionary British television and opera executive, in honour of Kevin Brownlow.

The GCM Catalogue: "This year’s Jonathan Dennis lecturer is Sir Jeremy Isaacs, probably the single most important public figure in giving the first possibility and impetus to the movement to bring silent cinema back to life, which has resulted in phenomena like the Giornate itself.
Only his enthusiasm and energy made possible Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s revelatory Hollywood series, which in turn led to the historic performance of Napoléon at London’s Empire Theatre, the first great orchestral performance of a silent film since the 1920s. This year marks the 30th anniversary of that key event in the rediscovery and resurrection of silent cinema.
Sir Jeremy’s contribution to silent cinema represents only one small facet of his life-long contribution to British culture. Throughout half a century in television – from 1950s Granada to Turner’s CNN and Murdoch’s Sky – he has never compromised his (far from conventional) view that television can be intelligent, can fulfil public service, and may trust and respect its audiences. His years as founding chief executive of Channel 4 (1981-1987) are now seen as British television’s golden age. Britain would have been a different place if the BBC had not missed its chance to make him Director General in 1987: instead he became General Director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, a post he held until 1996.

KEVIN BROWNLOW recalls the experience of working with Sir Jeremy:
"Having the usual prejudice of the film-maker against television, I didn’t even own a TV set in the early 1970s when The World at War began. My wife and I had to impose on friends in order to see each episode – 26 of them. So when the series was repeated, I invested in a small portable. A second viewing left me even more impressed, and I wrote a letter to the man who had conceived and produced the series, Jeremy Isaacs. He was now Director of Programmes at Thames TV and invited me to his office. It turned out that as a farewell gesture, he had given members of the crew a copy of my book The Parade’s Gone By… “And I think there is a series in it,” he said. No chance, I thought. My wife persuaded me that this was an incredible opportunity.
Jeremy had in mind a history of Hollywood from the beginning to the present, but he reckoned without Fox, in California, who announced an identical series a few weeks later. The emphasis then fell upon the silent era. I was asked if I wanted to produce the series, and knowing nothing about television, and even less about producing, I said no. As my partner I was given David Gill, an inspired choice. He was the nephew of the great artist, sculptor, and typographer Eric Gill. Furthermore, at his school during the war, David had had the job of projecting and selecting the music for the silent films that were regularly shown. Perfect training for Hollywood.
David and I persuaded Jeremy to act as our creative consultant, and every month he came in to the cutting room to inspect our rough cuts. Without these visits, I think we’d still be recutting them. He was so enthusiastic! He raised the morale of everyone working on the project. And he was so decisive. “You don’t need that – that sequence is priceless – did you really think that would work?” Jeremy tore through my first attempt at a commentary and taught me the value of brevity. For every commentary I have written since, I have heard a Scottish voice protesting: “No, no, no, far too long! Cut, cut, cut.”
Jeremy had assigned to us one of the jewels of The World at War – the man who had written its unforgettable theme, Carl Davis. Among the most exciting moments of our production was when Carl lowered his baton and a large orchestra burst into his theme for Ben-Hur (1925).
When Hollywood was complete, David and Carl thought it would be a fine idea to put silent films back into the theatre, accompanied by live orchestra. Their first choice was Broken Blossoms (1919), but the producer at Thames dismissed it as “corny”. Their next suggestion was Napoléon (1927). This was presented with its three-screen climax as part of the London Film Festival at the Empire Leicester Square. As he emerged from the crowded auditorium, I remember Jeremy saying, “If this film isn’t on Channel 4, there won’t be a Channel 4.”
David Gill and I continued our partnership and our documentaries on silent films until 1990, when Thames went out of business and we started Photoplay Productions with Patrick Stanbury. Jeremy kept the company going with commissions for Channel 4. Alas, David died in 1997 – but his company continues in the same tradition. The Jeremy Isaacs tradition.
I now hear an authoritative Scottish voice growling “Cut cut cut!”" KEVIN BROWNLOW

Sir Jeremy Isaac's lecture was a tribute to Kevin Brownlow, focusing on the Hollywood series and Napoleon. It was "a Photoplay production" with Patrick Stanbury providing the audiovisual contribution. Many memorable moments revisited and some also revealed.

My most cherished moment of this lecture was about Kevin Brownlow meeting John Wayne to discuss Harry Carey for the Hollywood series. I wish I could quote verbatim Wayne's profound insight how he learned from Carey to act naturally. Being natural does not work. You need to project naturally.

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