Harrow County School for Boys

Movie Treasure

by Hugh Skillen

[This is the second and concluding part of Hugh Skillen's article entitled "Cinema, and it explains the making of the School films.  Thanks to Colin Dickins for OCR-ing it from the Old Gaytonian, where it originally appeared.]

After six and a half years of wartime military service, I started teaching Modern Languages and Law after graduating at London University, and became very keen on cinema photography with a 16mm Kodak Model B.  This began when my father-in-law bought a Kodak 16mm camera to film the first months of life of our elder child born in 1945, as I was on duty in Germany and missing these interesting formative months.  In 1950 my wife bought me a second-hand Kodak 46mm Cine Camera “B” to continue the family films and I began to take shots of important events occurring at Harrow County School, such as Field Day of the Combined Cadet Force and the Annual Sports Day, and filmed distinguished speakers who were invited on Fridays to address the Sixth Form Society, and some of the plays being performed, in which Michael Portillo and Clive Anderson took leading parts and Harrow County Girls School supplied female leads.

At a meeting of the Staff in 1960, to which Sir Sidney Walton, great friend and Governor of the School. was invited, it was discussed how the School should celebrate its Golden Jubilee.  Sir Sydney was editor of the British Weekly and given to dramatic effects: for example on Speech day he would perform solos on the violin, and on one classic occasion he brought together centre stage Prime Minister Clement Attlee and the daughter of Pandit Nehru, president of India, to shake hands in a solemn commemoration of the friendship between the United Kingdom and its former Dominion.  This I filmed.  Sir Sydney stressed the idea of “thinking big" and suggested the events of the Jubilee Year should be committed to film as well as In a Golden Jubilee Book  This was immediately seized upon by the Headmaster Dr A R Simpson, who intimated that this task should be entrusted to me as I had already been seen filming important events.  Mr Ernie Amor, Chairman of Kodak Ltd. was an Old Boy and offered to supply film, including Ektachrome for interior shots, which was not available at that time except to professionals.  And so, with my second-hand Kodak cine camera, a tripod and improvised lighting which I already possessed, I proceeded to film the main events of the Jubilee Year.  This included speeches by prominent personalities, like Lord Hailsham, answering pertinent questions put by the boys, Sir Walter  Citrine Head of the TUC, Heads of BBC Departments and so on.  The guest for Speech Day was Sir David Eccies, Minister for Education, who normally did not attend Speech Days, and recorded his Speech following the Headmasters on my Grundig tape recorder to synchronise with the film.  The High Commissioner for India was so interested in my camera, because he had one exactly the same on which he had filmed The King of Bhutan and other important personalities, that the whole of his tine in the Headmaster’s study was taken up with this.

Splicing two thousand feet of film, editing it in the midnight hours after the children were abed, and often after I returned from the Ealing Technical College where I taught law in the evenings, was very time-consuming.  I had to take the spools of Ektachrome to a special studio in Wembley to have these processed, and the finished film to another studio to have it perma-sealed, as by this time we had earned that the film could deteriorate in 20-40 years if not treated with a wax coating to ensure its longevity.

The Old Gaytonians, in particular Walter Smith, were very keen on the film and Walter arranged a premiere at the National Liberal Club in London, to which many VIPs were invited including senior H.M. inspectors.  The Chief H.M. Inspector came to see me at the School subsequently with a film expert and recommended that the 2,000 ft film should be separated into several films each one with a topic, for example the School play, the Combined Cadet Force, Music and Drama, and this was quite an undertaking to me. although I could see the sense of it.

Now the re-titling of the individual films, seven of them, began. There were excellent commentaries by several of my colleagues made on magnetic stripe on the edge of the films so cutting had to be painstakingly undertaken.  Visits abroad were necessary for example to give the authentic background to Old Boys performing in the various Olympic Games of the century.  We had to film the magnificent arena in Rome, and trace former contestants to get them to do a repeat of their prowess on the field.  Our schoolboys playing for England in rugby internationals in Grenoble etc. were filmed on the spot.  With no financial help whatsoever I was able to do this economically because I was abroad every Easter and Summer holiday escorting hundreds of pupils, firstly from Middlesex and later from Eire, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England on exchange visits with France, Germany and Spain and, indeed, made an interesting film on Exchange Visits which was shown every year to the parents of pupils interested in taking part as well as to parents in Lyons, Paris, Barcelona and Stuttgart to show them what the children would experience on their visits to Britain.  Back in Harrow, we showed the films on several nights at the beginning of each School year to an audience of several hundreds of parents, to show them the School Day, Sports Days, etc.  The Headmaster, who used to watch these shows, suggested a title to me for the series, MAKERS of MEN, and dedicated the films to the teachers of the Grammar Schools. 

A poignant ceremony was held every year in the Hall attended by 900 pupils - Remembrance Day.  Present were over 300 members of the Combined Cadet Force in the uniforms of the three Services and the Scouts in their uniforms.  Ken Waller at the great organ set the atmosphere for the religious part of the ceremony.  The names of the dead of two World Wars were read out for each year of the wars by five senior members of staff as everyone stood to attention, preceded by bugles sounding the Last Post and followed by Reveille.  Members of the Navy, Army and Air Force came up on to the platform and were presented with a wreath to take to the School War Memorial, and a representative of the Old Gaytonians and the Staff would receive theirs on behalf of the Old Boys and the Parents Union to take with the Colour Party through the streets to the Harrow Town Memorial.  To complete this film I went to War Cemeteries in France and Belgium to film the war graves, not forgeting the hillside cemetery at St Valery-en-Caux, where the Middlesex Machine Gunners are buried beside their comrades of the Highland Division in the unrecorded Battle of the Somme in 1940, a month after Dunkirk.  For those who had no known grave in the Royal Air Force, sensitive film records were made at the beautiful memorial at Runnymede where I saw the names of two of my own class-mates and members of our School Rugby team on adjacent pillars.  This was our film tribute to the Old Boys, comparatively short but considered to be the best.  

Mr Amor, of Kodak, now arranged a premiere of the series of films with soundtracks to be celebrated in the Kodak Hall with an appropriate buffet luncheon.  When he saw the finished product he was amazed and said: "If we had known you were engaged on such an ambitious programme we would have given you one of our latest cameras!”  

To celebrate the School's Diamond Jubilee Year in 1971, another film was made covering the intervening ten years of events and scholastic achievements.  The Honours Board was filmed periodically but there was a gap of some years before the names of the ten Open Awards winners at Oxford and Cambridge were added in gold leaf.  These included Michael Portillo , the present Minister for Defence, Clive Anderson and Geoffrey Perkins of TV fame and Francis Matthews of theatre fame.  It was the custom for our former pupils at Oxbridge to invite members of staff to their Old Gaytonian Association dinners at University.  I was invited with Paul Oliver, and took the school film with me to show them and also took shots at the dinner table to incorporate in the Diamond Jubilee Film.  Michael Portillo reciprocated in a sense when he invited his original guests at a “thanksgiving’ dinner at School on 29 November 1971 to a Twenty Years On dinner at the House of Commons exactly on the anniversary date (recorded in the 1992 Magazine).

The previous series had shown the passage of time with excellent opening shot of shire horses at the annual parade in Regents Park and concluding with the Blue Streak Rocket and showing Air Marshal Coward RAF arriving at the saluting base on the School field by helicopter.  The Diamond Jubilee was introduced with shots of the eclipse of the sun when the first ray appears with the diamond effect’.  These films were shown until the school ceased to be a Grammar School in 1975.  

With the advent of video films it is now possible to transfer 16mm films to video and this will make it possible for Old Boys to possess films of their own schooldays between 1950 and 1971.   In the meanwhile the Imperial War Museum has shown great interest in the Combined Cadet Force film and acquired for the Museum, in April 1996, the commercial copy made with an optical sound track which Lieutenant-Colonel Bigham asked me to procure for training purposes for the Cadet Force. 

For all the recent changes, we still have a record of the glories of the past. The full range of films is:-

The School Day
In Corpore Sano (the Sports film)
The Combined Cadet Force 
Music and Drama
Remembrance Day
International Exchange Visits
The Diamond Jubilee

Hugh Skillen

The author was Major Hugh Skillen, Head of Modern Languages at Harrow County, who taught at Harrow County from 1946 to 1975.  He died on January 4th, 2004.

Source: The Old Gaytonian, 1997

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