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Coral Browne: A very elegant lady


My vision for Dreamchild
Billy Williams Film-maker
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In 1984 I was sent an absolutely delightful script, Dreamchild, written by Dennis Potter. It was directed by Gavin Millar and again, it was based on factual events and it was the story of the little girl that Lewis Carroll wrote the story of Alice in Wonderland. Now, Lewis Carroll was a mathematics... mathematics teacher at Christ Church College, Oxford, and his real name was Dodgson, Charles Dodgson... mathematics teacher, also a very fine photographer of... of children, particularly young girls, and little Alice, Alice Liddle, was the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church and one day in 1864 I think it was, he took Alice and her sisters and a companion on a... a rowing trip and he told her the story of Alice in Wonderland; that was how it was first recounted and then a couple of years later he wrote the book. So the real Alice existed: she had sisters and she lived in Christ Church, Oxford. When she was 80, she went to New York, to Columbia University, to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Lewis Carroll and to be part of the celebrations. When she got there, she became a celebrity and in fact, made quite a lot of money out of sponsorships from radio commercials and that sort of thing — sponsoring products.

Well, in this screenplay of... of Potter, the film alternates between the 1860s, when she's a young girl — 10 or 11 — into the 1930s — 1932 — when this old lady of 80 with a lady... a young lady companion sailed on a great ocean liner called the Berengaria...  the Berengaria... sailed to New York and so our film was in two very sepera... separate parts: Victorian England and Art Deco New York and I had the notion, because I'd always wanted to shoot more black and white, that it might look rather good if the New York material and all... all the material on the 1930s liner was in black and white and the Victorian scenes, and also scenes with the puppets that... and the strange creatures that Lewis Carroll created, the gryphon and the mock turtle and the caterpillar and the March Hare, and things like that... those... those puppets were all created for the movie by Jim Henson, Jim Henson's Creature Shop it was called, and they were all animatronics and everything and they were all very sophisticated. I thought if those scenes could be in colour and the Victorian scenes in colour and the kind of more of a present day scenes in the 1930s black and white, it would give the film a very distinctive quality. Also, we needed a lot of library material of New York from the ‘30s of when the ocean liner arrives, and so we need scene... scenes of New York. I put this idea to the director and the two producers and they all agreed that it was great, that we should do it. Now on the film I'd just finished, Ordeal By Innocence, I'd already experimented with the technique of using colour negative and by making, I think it's called a pan master, in the laboratory, you could print black and white on to colour stock, so you... in the same reel of film you could go from a colour scene into a black and white scene without making a splice and then back to colour, or whatever you wanted to do. I'd used that for a short sequence in... in Ordeal by Innocence so this... this idea was accepted and... and we started looking towards doing this.

We had a final conference with Dennis Potter, who not only wrote the screenplay but was the executive producer, and he's a very authoritative figure, and we had this meeting and nobody brought up this idea of black and white, you see and so finally I... I said well... to Dennis, who was in the chair, I said: ’Well, you know, how about shooting the modern Art Deco scenes in black and white?’ ‘Absolute... no, no, no, absolutely... it... it wouldn't work’, he said, ‘be... be a complete distraction’. Nobody came to my assistance; I was just shot down and Dennis Potter, not the kind of man you could argue with, especially given his position on the movie, so it never happened. So I really lost this whole thread of having a distinction between the 1930s and the 1860s, so we shot it, more or less conventionally, except, you know, I was using a lot of soft light.

Billy Williams, London-born cinematographer Billy Williams gained his first two Oscar nominations for the acclaimed “Women in Love” and “On Golden Pond”. His third nomination, which was successful, was for the epic “Gandhi”. He was President of the British Society of Cinematographers, and was awarded the Camera Image Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

Listeners: Neil Binney

Neil Binney began working as a 'clapper boy' in 1946 on spin-off films from steam radio such as "Dick Barton". Between 1948-1950 he served as a Royal Air Force photographer. From 1950 he was a Technicolor assistant technician working on films such as John Ford's "Mogambo" (photographed by Freddie Young), Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (Bob Burke), and Visconti's "Senso" (G.R. Aldo/B. Cracker). As a camera assistant he worked on "Mind Benders", "Billy Liar" and "This Sporting Life". Niel Binney became a camera operator in 1963 and worked with, among others, Jack Cardiff, Fred Tammes and Billy Williams. He was elected associate member of the British Society of Cinematographers in 1981 and his most recent credits include "A Fish Called Wanda" and "Fierce Creatures".

Duration: 5 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2003

Date story went live: 24 January 2008