Looking back in time
Suffolk school boy Andrew Gray always knew that he wanted to work in the film industry. He just didn’t know how to break into such a rarefied profession. He thought that actually making a film was probably as good a calling card as anything and so set out to make his own widescreen epic.
The student film was an ambitious period drama and was good enough not only to help him land a place at Cambridge, reading history, but also to launch him, after graduation, into the world of television, working as a researcher on such productions as Tony Robinson’s Worst Jobs in History.
Today Andrew is the joint owner of Timereel Pictures, a TV and DVD production company specialising in archive films which relate to specific places and specific stories. “We try and personalise the stories we tell. We would never produce a generic World War II title. We would look at one person or one community’s story or one particular angle and tell that. At the end of the day film-making is about telling a story and telling it in a way that makes people want to watch.”
The genesis of his love of film and his love telling dramatic historical stories can be traced back to his school days.
Andrew, who was born and raised in Mendlesham, was a pupil; at St Joseph’s College in Ipswich and was 19 when he discovered that his future lay in the world of film and television.
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“I had just directed the Upper Sixth play called Journey’s End which is set during World War I. I had this light-bulb moment when I suddenly realised that I really enjoyed directing. I really enjoyed telling stories. The school didn’t have a theatre, so we performed it in the library and we stripped out all the book shelves. I had just seen Saving Private Ryan, so I had put in this battle sequence at the beginning and it was while I was putting all this together, I had this light-bulb moment. I realised that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I really enjoyed directing.
“After I finished school I had this gap year and I thought that I would make a film. I had this idea for a costume drama – a Romeo and Juliet type story set in the First World War, but it was told from the German point of view. I had no background in film at all. I grew up in a household without a television but I sat down and wrote this screenplay about this love story”
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He said his technical expertise, such as it was at the time, was gleaned from books which he had won on speech day. “I wrote this screenplay then did the maths having read about budgets and realised that it was going to cost millions. Why I didn’t start doing a low budget horror? I don’t know but I had a real passion for this story. The father of a friend of mine fronted us some money, and said ‘why don’t you go off and just shoot some scenes, make a promotional film?’ So that’s what we did.
“We got the actors together in London and then spent two weeks shooting in Suffolk. For what it was it was done on a pretty big scale. We had a real train in it. We had explosions going off and all sorts. Then I went off to university and during the holidays I would cut it together, into a half hour costume drama and showed it in the college cinema.”
He said that despite the passage of time he remains very proud of his selected scenes promo and would dearly love an opportunity to finish it at some point, even though it would mean re-shooting what he had already got in the can.
“I remain very proud of it because visually it looks very professional, if I say so myself. It was called Generation Lost and that was it, the disease had bitten. Once you’ve made a film that’s it, you want to make another. You’ve got the bug.”
He said that he spent three years at university studying history and upon leaving he knew that he still wanted to be involved in the film business. “It’s like a disease that never leaves you. Friends tried to persuade me to go into The City and make some money first but I knew that if I did that I would be lost. So I started looking around for any freelance jobs that were going and I was lucky enough to get a job working for a company called Spire Films which was making a series called The Worst Jobs in History for Channel Four, presented by Tony Robinson. They were looking for a researcher and because I had made this film, I had a really good grounding in production.
“They fired all these questions at me in the interview: Where do you get props and costumes from for this, that and the other and I was able to give them all the names and numbers and they offered me a job. I worked for them off and on for two years working on The Worst Jobs in History and another show called The Peasants Revolt. That was really useful because that gave me an apprenticeship in television.”
He said that up until then he had always worked for himself and had learnt on the job. Now he was able to talk to other professionals and see how they worked. “I got to learn some of the tricks of the trade.
“I also leaned how hit and miss television can be. If you want to get something made you have got to get it commissioned. But, there are only about half-a-dozen commissioning editors and they decided what the public sees and what they don’t see, which led me to thinking: ‘Well that’s all well and good but there must be some members of the public who want to see something that they are not seeing – particularly as television is very fad driven.
“Just after I joined there was this boom in history programmes and everyone was saying that history was the new cooking – or some such rubbish. Then there was a whole spate of history docs which just disappeared when someone decided that everyone now wanted to see reality shows.
“It was at this point that I found myself thinking: ‘Why does television have to be so fad driven? Surely Mr Jones who lives down the road, who used to enjoy his history documentaries, will still enjoy history documentaries. That coupled with the fact that freelancing could be very hit and miss and I don’t come from a background which has lots of money to tied me over those lean times meant that I quickly started looking at running my own production company. I had always wanted my own production company and this crystalised the thought in my head.
“I remember thinking that the film business is an industry and if you want your films out there you have to treat it in exactly the same way as if you were making cars and tins of baked beans. You’ve got to make, get it out there and sell it.”
As a result Andrew Gray with business partner Ashley Bond set up his own production company and they hit upon the idea of making a film about the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway. “We thought it would be a great story because we could look at the idea behind it and how it went bankrupt before it started and how the line finished in a field. We had no money, but the museum was up the road and we said: ‘Why don’t we make a film about that.’
He said that in order to make their debut production they pre-sold the title and used the money to fund the production costs. “We put out flyers which said ‘We’re making this’ if you want a copy it’s �15.99 for a DVD. Most people sent us a cheque for something they hadn’t even seen and that helped us get off the ground.”
He said that the driving force behind their company was the idea that their films were a window into another time. He said that they were properly made films, edited from a variety of different sources rather than a straight transfer of existing film.
“We are looking to tell a story, so we are looking at the best sources to tell that story. The thing that all the films have in common is that they show how major historic events and changes in society affected ordinary people. Most television documentaries use archive footage intermittently to illustrate a point. We use it to create a picture of a world in the past. We look at loads of material and try and pick out things which are unusual or we focus on a particular story which is a little bit different.”
He said for a one hour programme they will have to edit down at least five hours of footage. We will work on a 3 to 1 cutting ratio. We use company films, news reel footage, some amateur films, and we have just got a deal with ITN Source so we have access to a whole load of professionally shot news footage which is very handy.”
He said that the reason for re-editing film was to give a film a modern pace but also to tell the story that they want to tell and not have to tell the story that the original film-maker told. They also frequently add a new sound track along with narration or commentary. “Because film archives and film restoration have only been taken seriously in the last 20-30 years a lot of the sound elements have disappeared and you are just left with silent footage. Sometimes you will come across some film cans you won’t know what is in them. I am quite keen of getting the right effects. If we have footage of a 1930s car then we will try and get sound of the right car. I think that is important because if you don’t do it right, someone somewhere will catch you out.”
He said that the turning point came when they sold their second title the American Airforce in East Anglia: In Colour to a TV station and Andrew needed to clear the rights for transmission.
“I went into the East Anglian Film Archive for a meeting. While I was there I asked how many people used it, expecting them to say about 100 a month or something like that. I was really taken back when he said that no-one, except for a few TV companies wanting footage for documentaries. They had this vast archive sitting there just waiting to be used. So we started going into partnership with them.”
As their range of archive productions have increased Andrew has brokered a deal to use footage from the ITN archive in London to enable them to do stories from around the country. “They have a recently digitised archive called New Classics which holds news footage from 1895 to the 1960s and they were looking for someone to use, so the fit with us was perfect.”
He said with access to two major film archives means that the company has expanded out of his parents house and now they have premises in Norwich and plan to start making bespoke documentaries for television. “I think old news footage, properly presented and edited, would lend itself superbly to a television series. I would love to set up a television arm. Also you could do a ten and now series, taking a look around towns and cities, getting someone to show you around and being able to show viewers how it has changed or equally how it hasn’t changed and just has been updated.
“I think there is a huge appetite for archive film when BBC2 showed the Mitchell and Kenyon films last year they had something like six million viewers – that’s a lot these days.”
He said although most archive footage is in black and white when they come across colour footage it lends an air of excitement to a project. “We recently did a four-parter on London’s war and we uncovered some colour film of the Home Guard engaged on an exercise and it really brought the era to life. Colour makes things much more immediate. When you get your hands on some original colour footage, it does close the gap.”
He added that although it is early days, they are looking at the possibility of doing one-off feature film documentaries. “They wouldn’t necessarily be historical and they would be a big ask but it is something we are looking at.”
He said that funding was always the problem. Feature films in Britain are very difficult to fund simply because they are always funded by what he describes as a tin-cup approach – a producer going around seeking funding for a film on a one-off basis rather than part of a package. If there is a package deal the more successful films subsidise the less successful, which is the way that Hollywood works.
“I think it is possible to get a raft of films going at the same time. Working Title do that and are very successful but although they are a British company they do have American backing.”
He said that if British investors looked more kindly on film then a lot of the home-grown talent wouldn’t fly off to California as soon as they made a name for themselves.
“If you look at half of the cast and crew members on a lot of American movies, a high proportion come from Britain. We have a wonderful reputation when it comes to film-making but sadly not enough gets made here. We export our talent overseas – principally to Los Angeles.”
Nevertheless Andrew is optimistic about the future. The popularity of documentaries has never been higher and the fact that the documentary is now a regular fixture on the big screen is something to be celebrated. He is also staging a series of public screenings of local footage. Today they are screening at The Picturehouse Cinema in Bury St Edmunds, Here Was The News, footage from old Anglia News bulletins.
n More information about Timereel films and events can be gained from their website www.timereel.co.uk