My Story by Laurence Coussell

Born on May 12th, 1907, I was educated at Dulwich College from 1920 to 1925. Unfortunately I received no technical training. On leaving the College, I had a prolonged illness, as a result of which I entered a London office with the idea of leading a quiet life. As a hobby, I studied sound amplifiers and microphone equipment, which at that time were in very early stages of development. A year later I found that my hobby left no time for business and I gave up business! In 1927 Paul Whiteman’s Band was playing at the Tivoli Cinema, London, which at that time was run by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as their show house. Amplifiers were needed at the Tivoli, and I got the job. Then came the films “Big Parade” and “Ben Hur”, which together occupied the Tivoli for nearly two years. Sound and musical effects for the first time played important parts, while I did various amplifier jobs for them. Here I met frequently members of the BBC engineering squad, and was able to make myself familiar with broadcasting practice.

Metro-Goldwyn were now building their luxury “New Empire” on the site of the famous old Empire music hall in Leicester Square, and there was a general transfer from the Tivoli when the New Empire opened in 1928. I learned a great deal during the building and equipping of the Empire, and obtained the order for the band repeater system to relay the theatre organ and orchestra into the lounges. Very proud of this, I shared the life of London’s first big luxury cinema for a prolonged period and carefully watched the introduction of the talking films. On learning of the frequent complaints from deaf patrons who could not hear “talkies”, I designed and installed at the Empire the first Audiophone installation, whereby the deaf could hear the sound perfectly. The empire was given to me one morning for a press demonstration – the film, I remember, was “Broadway Melody” – and I got enormous press publicity. This was in 1929. I widely advertised my “invention” – with zero results. The cinemas were too busy paying for their talkie sets! In due course, deaf systems were developed by all the big concerns, and today there are very few cinemas without this apparatus. My only reward is the satisfaction of having devised the first installation at the empire, and I still possess a press book of notices.

And so the talkies came to stay. Frightened at first by the complexity of the apparatus, I soon discovered that it would not be too difficult to devise an outfit of my own. Anyhow, it was still sound-on-disc. Sound-on-film worries were to follow. I had watched one or two “pirate” outfits come and go, mainly because of bad demonstrations and the resulting bad publicity. I linked up with another engineer, and we looked for somewhere to launch my own system, where the limelight of publicity would be less strong than in London. We decided upon Dublin, in Ireland, and proceeded there to make all the mistakes before setting up in London. The one installation in London led to about 70 more, and it was nearly three years before we could go home to a good night’s sleep! The adventures (and misadventures) which befell us would fill a book – but not this one! Sufficient to say that it was a wonderful experience in many ways and that the installations were very good and reliable. I must have learned everything there is to know about theatre sound systems. There were only the two of us to design and build all the equipment, to do all the installations and to operate the opening nights, and then to give service all over Ireland. Anyhow, we did it, and many of these outfits are still running with only an occasional rush visit to keep them going.

I then transferred my activities to France, and for the next two years I equipped about 25 cinemas in the Paris region. Amid the excitement of installations and opening nights, I learned to speak French from the French workmen on the jobs. While they were excellent fellows, the French they taught me was not so excellent. I still have this to live down, when conversing in polite French company!

In Paris I opened a trade viewing theatre and met many of the Continental film folk. I learned much about production and distribution in France and visited most of the studios. The economical systems under which they operated were a revelation. I became particularly interested in the French industry of “doublage” – the art of putting French talk onto English, American or German pictures. About 60% of the films running in France were “doubled”. After careful study, I designed and built and fully equipped a doubling studio for a French film. I also developed my own independent sound recording system, which could operate free of royalties – it became known as the WRAY-COUSSELL. It took five months to fit up this studio, and then both the studio and the system were a “flop”. This of course created a set-back, but we doubled our efforts and finally turned out a really good job. The recording system is still in operation and several small studios have my apparatus installed. After numerous other adventures and experiences, the financial crisis of 1934 almost finished off the Continental film business, and quite finished me off. So ended seven glorious years, and I have yet to meet another sound engineer with so much practical experience of theatre and sound equipments.

With the French crisis, I had to call a halt in theatre activities. I decided to withdraw from the field altogether and to return to London, taking with me the sound recording equipment. I had but few connections in London *, and so I started afresh. I decided to produce a documentary film on the Cathedral City of Canterbury. With limited funds and terrible weather to contend with, the venture nearly became a disaster. However, I acted as script writer, photographer, recording engineer, film editor and general manager and after four months of heart-breaking effort the film was finished. I called it “The Royal and Ancient City of Canterbury” and it contained, for the first time, actual sequences of sound and picture recorded inside the Cathedral. The Dean of Canterbury gave me a great deal of encouragement and help. Thus was created this two-reel film, my first production, which has since proved very successful. It was distributed through the cinemas by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and it was also taken up by the Religious Film Society ** for church showings. As a result of this, I became chief technician to the Religious Film Society, and proceeded to make plans for the special equipping of a small studio, where films for church use could be made on an ultra-economical basis. While waiting for the studio to materialise, I planned a three-reel production (mostly demanding domestic interiors) which was almost entirely produced and filmed in a London suburban house. The house, during the eight days of shooting, bears no description. Let it suffice to say that, upstairs or downstairs, one could hardly move about for lamps, cameras and sound recording gear – all hitched together by formidable festoons of cable. But the film was nevertheless satisfactory, and proved that no conditions can be regarded as “impossible”.

At the end of 1937, the Religious Film Studio was opened at Norwood and its entire technical installation and operation is my work. I have made it my business to get the maximum results from the very bare essentials of equipment, and we have since produced a considerable number of films on this basis. With my little unit of only four people, we have turned out in one year some 25 subjects, silent and sound, standard and sub-standard, of running times from 10 to 45 minutes. I travelled all round Europe to produce, single-handed, a documentary on the travels of William Tyndale, bible translator, which has been one of the most successful films.

In the summer of 1937, I required a holiday and change from making one-man films. I therefore undertook the sound recording of a commercial film which was produced entirely on location in Ireland. I built the whole system into a saloon car, including drums of cable and generator. The car nearly fell apart under the weight. For eight weeks we struggled with the weather, but the equipment behaved splendidly. I believe that it could be taken and operated anywhere on earth.

So ends *** my history for the present. I am busy editing the last nine films made in our studio, and I look forward to making some really good films next year. Our basis of working is at the rate of £250 - £400 (depending on subject) per finished reel of 1000 feet of standard film. This is about 25% of the lowest cost that can be managed in a commercial studio.

Laurence Coussell (1907 – 1941)


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