January 2, 2017


Sydney Box (1907-1983) b. Beckenham, Kent, England.

Sydney Box

The Box family lived in Beckenham, Kent. At fourteen, Sydney he became a sportswriter for the local papers. The young Box was also an enthusiastic member of the local amateur dramatic society, writing and producing plays and revues. When he was eighteen, he put on the six-hour-long Peer Gynt in its entirety. In the course of his life Sydney Box passed so swiftly through a succession of varied challenges that it seems particularly appropriate that he should also have been a prolific writer of one-act plays. He not only wrote them but judged them, travelling to amateur theatre competitions all over the country. At one such festival at the Welwyn Theatre in 1932 he met a young script editor, Muriel Baker, who would become his collaborator and his wife. Sydney had shown no particular interest in films when he was growing up, but the extraordinary scope of his activities meant that he was bound to come across them sooner rather than later. Soon after his success with Not This Man the writer-director Ralph Smart, who was making a documentary for a company called Publicity Films, asked him if he would write the commentary. Sydney accepted and the assignment led to regular work. Making the most of the moment again, he set up a documentary company in the autumn of 1940. After the indecision of the first months of the war the Films Division of the Ministry of Information had at last found a sense of purpose. There was a large and consistent demand for propaganda and information films. Two years later Verity Films were the largest producers of documentary films in the country, with more than ten units working simultaneously. Thinking up ideas for films, negotiating deals, writing scripts, organising the schedules of so many productions, and coping with all the difficulties of wartime when materials and experienced staff were hard to find – it was the sort of workload to cause nervous breakdowns in other people, but still it seemed not to be enough for Sydney. The offer to produce a film version of Frederick Lonsdale’s comedy On Approval (1944) for the actor Clive Brook was a particularly enticing one. It was an opportunity to cross over into features: he and Muriel had written many one-act plays together, and it had been a long-held ambition of theirs to film their own scripts. Against all odds, as there had been nothing to laugh about during its production, On Approval (1944) was hailed as a first-class screen comedy. After producing two more films for Two Cities, English Without Tears (1944) and Don’t Take it to Heart (1944), he took out a lease on the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith in 1943 in order to produce his own features. He raised £45,000 to make 29 Acacia Avenue (1945), Box had proceeded on the understanding that the Rank Organisation would be the distributor, but when Arthur Rank saw the film, he declared it to be immoral as it set a bad example to young people. Rank’s offer to pay the costs of the film if it was left on the shelf was refused, as it would have let down all the people who had been involved. In spite of turning down Rank’s money, Sydney went ahead with the next film planned for Riverside Studios. Somehow he had to scrape together the finance for The Seventh Veil (1945) while at the same time finding another distributor for 29 Acacia Avenue (1945). It was a situation few people would have had the courage to face. Production began on The Seventh Veil (1945) before all the necessary money was in place. The creditors were kept at bay ‘by a process of financial jugglery at which Sydney excelled’. But there was another hurdle. No leading man could be found to play the role of Ann Todd’s cruel guardian. A miracle arrived in the form of James Mason, who had become one of Britain’s biggest stars after The Man in Grey (1943). It was an extraordinary coup to persuade him to become involved in such a small film, with an as yet incomplete budget. Perhaps the difference was made by the fact that Mason would have had some fellow feeling for Box. He had once been a small independent producer himself. The Seventh Veil (1945) was a huge critical and commercial success, both in England and America. It was the crowning achievement of an extraordinary career. There was no one in wartime cinema as energetic, progressive or versatile as Box. Not only had he built Verity into the largest producer of documentaries, he had established himself as a significant producer of features both for Two Cities and on his own account. But this dynamism was also a weakness. He never stayed still for long enough to consolidate his gains. His relationship with Two Cities was enviable. It was the most prestigious production company in Britain, and Sydney could propose feature film ideas to its production meetings. If he had possessed a more leisurely temperament, he might have made under Del Giudice’s famously generous sponsorship some films of real consequence. Instead, he preferred to face the risks of independent production. When Rank, impressed by The Seventh Veil (1945), offered Sydney the job of running Gainsborough Studios, inevitably he accepted. Now a new challenge, he would run a film factory. The contract also offered security. No more worries about finding finance or securing distribution. Each picture was to have a budget of approximately £200,000 – twice what had been scraped together for The Seventh Veil (1945). But there was a catch. Rank was under pressure to increase the production of British films to meet the requirements of the Quota Act, and Sydney undertook to increase production from the three films that Gainsborough had hitherto been making a year to twelve. Muriel Box was put in charge of the script department, and Betty Box looked after Gainsborough’s studio in Islington, but the enterprise was far too large to be run as a family concern. Sydney found himself administering a huge machine and the films that got made were just the tip of the iceberg, he had also to contend with studio politics. His arrival at Gainsborough had been preceded by some corporate bloodletting, as Rank got rid of the previous studio boss, Maurice Ostrer. Many Gainsborough staff retained a considerable loyalty for the old regime, and felt ill disposed towards Sydney, some to the point of obstruction. Under the circumstances it was scarcely surprising that no great films emerged from Gainsborough under Boxs’ stewardship – although there was much that was interesting. He did not just settle for the safer and less time-consuming option of adapting novels, but in films like Holiday Camp (1947), Easy Money or Good Time Girl (both 1948) also showed a willingness to tackle contemporary issues with original scripts. It was an inheritance of his documentary background. There was an element of pragmatism in his thinking as he was seeking to increase production at a time when there was a severe shortage of studio space. But the programme as a whole was marked by a realism and a readiness to treat its audience as intelligent that had never been a concern of the previous regime responsible for such far-fetched confections as The Wicked Lady (1945) and Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945). Quite a few of the films could have achieved real distinction if they had been executed with less haste. In his first year at Gainsborough he produced not the twelve pictures that he had promised with what had seemed to the trade press like crazy optimism, but fourteen. The following year he celebrated his Silver Jubilee. It was perhaps typical that he didn’t feel he had to wait twenty-five years. At Shepherd’s Bush Studios on 8 December 1947 – only five years after he had made his first feature – he watched his twenty-fifth, The Bad Lord Byron (1949) take the floor and celebrated with a party of producers, directors, film critics and stars. Box didn’t really require an excuse for such intense activity, but there was an important underlying reason for the publicity that the occasion attracted. The boycott of British cinemas that Hollywood had imposed a few months before meant that British films were badly needed to make up for the shortfall. At Gainsborough Box bore the brunt of meeting this crisis. After only three years at the studios he fell seriously ill, and Gainsborough was wound up as the Rank Organisation switched its production to Pinewood. One need only watch The Seventh Veil (1945) to appreciate that Sydney Box was one of the most gifted people working in British films. The pity was that he never applied himself at anything for long enough to make a permanent mark.

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