FIRST PERSON: Abergavenny film veteran Debra Bowring
5:40pm Wednesday 16th January 2013 in News
She’s worked with Hollywood movie stars and legendary film directors in a career spanning more than five decades. Debra Bowring, 74, from Abergavenny, spoke to KATH SKELLON.
I HAVE worked in the entertainment industry for 58 years, starting in the cutting rooms as a film and sound editor at Movietonews in the 1950s.
I went on to working on many feature films as a sound editor for all the major studios, including the award-winning 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Killing Fields, A Room With a View, Brazil and Pete Townshend’s White City.
My career has been like a fairy tale, always going straight from one project to another. I never looked for film work but have been very lucky, working with some of the acting greats like David Niven, Donald Sutherland, John Hurt and Lawrence Olivier, as well as film directors Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick.
My fascination for films began when I was a young girl growing up in Essex and my parents gave me a projector. Going to the cinema in those days was a real family affair. I always loved seeing the beam coming from the projection box as people used to smoke in cinemas then. We used to watch films every week, many of them Westerns.
I worked on a milk round on the weekends, earning half a crown, to make enough money to buy my first movie camera. I never dreamt of doing anything else, but in school people expected girls to work as a secretary or in a bank.
I managed to buy a secondhand movie 9.5mm camera and started making my own films. I wasn’t very academic but my science teacher encouraged me to run the school’s 16mm projector.
When I finished school he encouraged my parents that I had a talent and shouldn’t waste it. I wrote to all the film companies and had many rejections because I wasn’t in the union.
My breakthrough came when my father, who worked as a stockbrokers’ clerk at the company that took over British Lion films at Shepperton Studios, that had gone bankrupt, told his boss that I wanted to work in movies behind the camera.
I got an invitation to the studios and met the head, who advised me to get a job in the film labs as that was a chance of getting a union ticket.
My dad saw a Movietonews ad in the Evening Standard for a job in the film library in Soho Square, London. I was 16 and got the job and worked for nine weeks before a vacancy arose in the cutting room, where I started editing black and white films.
I loved working in the cutting room and worked on the first cinemascope films and documentaries.
I stayed there for several years but fell seriously ill after contracting peritonitis and spent ten weeks in hospital.
I soon left there and got a job editing commercials, which paid well, including doing a bit of hand modelling for a well-known black and white commercial.
The tea-boy there was the then unknown Terry Nelhams, now Adam Faith, who worked at the Two-Eyes coffee bar near the studio late in the night. He was a lovely chap and used to come in with music sheets and talk about making pop songs. He eventually left and released a record but would always come by when he was in London.
I was in my early twenties and still wanted to get into real films and had joined the union. I handed my notice in but didn’t have anywhere to go. The union produced a list of all the jobs in the industry and on my last day found a job at Elstree Studios for commercials. I remember going to Tottenham Court station and using the phone to call the number but was put through to Columbia Pictures by mistake, but by luck they wanted someone to start straightaway.
I took over the picture editing on the thriller Die Die My Darling, known as Fanatic in the UK, in 1965, made by Hammer Film Productions, starring Tallulah Bankhead, Stephanie Powers, Peter Vaughan and Donald Sutherland. I was proud of my first big movie and loved editing as you are next to the director.
As soon as I finished that film I went to work on the horror film The Skull at Shepperton Studios, which featured the actor Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing for Paramount Pictures. I never dreamt I would be sound editing on such big films.
Another great director I worked with was Roman Polanski, on Dance of the Vampires for MGM. He starred in and directed the film.
In 1966 I worked on the musical Stop the World I Want to Get Off at Pinewood Studios for Warner Bros, where the cutting room was built on set. It should have taken six weeks but took a year to make.
I always wanted to work in Cinerama and the opportunity came to work with Stanley Kubrick on the award-winning fiction film '2001: A Space Odyssey' for MGM, which was shown on a huge wall-to-wall screen using 70mm films.
I then worked on 'Before Winter Comes', where I met the wonderful and charming great actor David Niven. He would tell wonderful stories for hours over lunch.
I got to attend many world premiers of the films and loved every minute of it. I turned to television work in between films and worked on several TV series, including The Sweeney, Special Branch and Monkey.
I also sound edited The World Cup – a Captain’s Tale and Chelsea Reach and a few episodes of The Saint. It was while working on The Sweeney in 1972 that I was taken ill and diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
I wasn’t always behind the camera.
As a youngster my first acting role in school was as Maid Marion in Robin Hood and from then I always wanted to try it. I auditioned to be in the chorus in the musical Robert and Elizabeth in the 70s, got the part and loved it. I also had a small speaking part in Kiss Me Kate.
I also worked on the 1984 Academy Award-winning film The Killing Fields and A Room With a View, which had a fantastic cast of Dame Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Denholm Elliot, Simon Callow and Daniel Day Lewis, and was a big film. My job was to paint a picture through sound using dialogue and music.
I like producing something that is an experience and that is something I believe in. One of my proudest moments was being elected as a member of Bafta in 1975, a member of the Cinema and Television Veterans in 1999 and awarded a lifetime membership of BECTU in 2002.
I decided to produce my own films and was also producer, scriptwriter and director of my own company, Filmtel Productions Ltd.
I moved to Blaenavon in the early 90s after inheriting a house from a relative. I had tried my hand at radio presenting while filming and loved it, so when the opportunity arose to get back on air again I jumped at the chance.
At WHAM! Radio, Blaenavon’s community radio station, I produced and presented Crosstalk, a Sunday-morning religious talk and music show, and Good Morning magazine programme during the week at Nevill Hall Sound in Abergavenny. I also worked at Crow FM in Cwmbran, interviewing guests including the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, the Rt Honourable Paul Murphy, MP, and singing star Peter Karrie.
I’ve had a lifetime’s experience in the movie industry and it’s been magical.
I’ve made some great friends over the years with the likes of Peter O’Toole and Yul Brynner, and it’s always sad to see tributes to those who have passed away at the Baftas and the Oscars each year whom I knew. At 74 I think I’m one of the few left from that era of the movie industry. It’s the end of an era. Accountants run films nowadays and the use of 35mm film ends this year and will swap to digital. Films like The Hobbit are shot in HFR 3D (high frame rate) as well as 3D, IMAX at a higher frame rate, which will be better and sharper.
This is the future of cinema.
Although retired and living in Abergavenny I am still passionate about films and television and continue working with Bafta.
Although suffering with ill-health I still hope to work on films in the future.