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Interview: Nova Pilbeam (Jun/1990)

Interview with actress Nova Pilbeam

Originally published in "Sixty Voices: Celebrities Recall the Golden Age of British Cinema":

Although you made most of your films in the 40's, I'd like to ask you about several of your 30's films. Did Hitchcock cast you as the kidnapped daughter in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" on the basis of seeing you in "Little Friend"?

I don't know, but the film was for Gaumont-British for whom I went under contract after "Little Friend". I assume they would have done their casting. It was a very long contract -- six or seven years -- which was prettty outrageous. It prevented me from being in the theatre as much as I would have liked.

What are your recollections of "The Man Who Knew Too Much"?

A lot of it was set in Switzerland; I don't know if the others went on location, but I certainly didn't. My part was all made at Gaumont-British. I've heard people who worked with Hitch say that it was not the most exhilarating experience, and, though I was only about fifteen, I felt something of that. Hitch had everything in his head before he went to the set; therefore one was rather moved around and manipulated a lot. Having said that, I liked him very much. For instance, in "Young and Innocent", there was a dog that both Hitch and I adored; there came a time that we had finished the sequences with the dog and he was supposed to go back. We were both so upset that Hitch decided to write him another sequence so we could keep him around for another five or six days.

Did You enjoy making "Young and Innocent" for him?

Very much. We did a lot in the country and I enjoyed that. My first husband was Hitchcock's assistant director and he was on the film set too. I think it was quite the sunniest film I was involved with. We didn't use doubles. I did that scene in the mine myself and it was my husband's-to-be, Pen's, hand holding me up as I dangled there. I was terrified! But Hitch had this quirky sense of humour and made that scene go on and on so I thought my arm would come out of it's socket My daughter had never seen the film until it came to a little cinema in Camden Town recently and she insisted on going to see it. I hate to watch my films but I took a large sip of gin beforehand and we went. What amazed me was that, firstly, the cinema was full and, secondly, it was full of young people. I would have thought that "Young and Innocent" was a very dated film, yet they seemed to find it fascinating. I don't remember the details of how that great tracking shot at the end was done, but I know it went on and on and everyone had to know exactly when to move -- it was done like a military manoeuvre. I think Hitchcock's early films were lovely -- things like "The Thirty Nine Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes". He was a wonderful director and was charming, though he had a really wicked wit.

You were the star of "Tudor Rose" at the age of sixteen. Did it seem a big responsibility?

I must have been very excited at the time; it was certainly a wonderful part. I knew about Lady Jane Grey and thought the script was extremely good. I was very overpowered by the names in the cast list: Cedric Hardwicke, Sibyl Thorndyke, all those great people. I felt very supported by them, but was also scared as you could imagine. Robert Stevenson was very supportive of me and I liked him very much. He was married to Anna Lee who was so beautiful! Oh, and I do remember John Mills, who was very young also, and we both rather held each other up. Martha Hunt played my mother in the film and she was as great an eccentric off the screen as she was on it. She was a highly intelligent and witty woman.

I can remember doing the close-up for the final scene in the Tower when the cannons go off meaning Jane has been beheaded. In order to make the noise of a cannon they used a gong and I recall having a great desire to make hysterics. It seemed such an extraordinary noise to make! I haven't seen the remake but I read some reviews which suggested she was played as a much more headstrong character. I would have found it very difficult to play her that way because I'm sure, as a young girl brought up in Tudor times, she would have done what she was told.

You made two films in 1941 directed by Walter Mycroft, "Spring Meeting" and "Banana Ridge". Do you remember him?

He did a number of films but he isn't much heard about for some reason. He was a rather unobtrusive director, but I do remember "Spring Meeting" with Michael Wilding: that was lovely. It had been a famous play and was quite amusing. I think "Banana Ridge" must have been based on a stage farce that was with Dawson and Hare. They were very funny as comedians but, like most comedians, they weren't at all funny off the set. Hare and Drayton were such a physical contrast to each other -- and in every other way too. Alfred Drayton was rather an obsessive, dogmatic character, whereas Robertson hare was very gentle and charming. Isabel Jeans was in it too and she had tremendous style. I have memories of her being wonderfully dressed, very chic.

What do you remember of the Ealing film, "The Next of Kin"?

We went on location for that somewhere in the South-West. It had a very interesting director, Thorold Dickinson. It was intended as a propaganda film but it went a little beyond that and was a good film in its own right. I imagine it was through the Ministry of Information but it Micky Balcon's studio and I think Thorold was under contract to Micky. I did several films at Ealing and was very fond of Ealing and Micky. My husband, Pen, was also under contract to him. We had plans to work together in the future but he was killed in the war two years after we were married. I think "Next of Kin" holds up well, and, even during the making of it, I thought it was a very interesting film. And Thorold was a very warm person. I like someone who gives me room to move, but at the same time is open to discussion.

Do you recall Pastor Hall made before the war but, because of it's anti-German sentiments, not released until 1940?

I have little recollection of it other than that the cast included Wilfred Lawson and it was directed by Roy Boulting who is a very interesting, intelligent man. I did think it was an interesting script and very prophetic.

You played Anna Neagle's sister in "Yellow Canary". Did you enjoy working with the Wilcoxes?

Anna and Herbert were lovely to work with. I didn't spend much time with them because I only had a couple of scenes with Anna, including a breakfast scene with Majorie Fielding as our mother. Anna and I looked rather alike. I think we could both see the resemblance. Again, this was pretty much a propaganda film.

You were listed in one reference as having made two films in 1944, "Out of Chaos" and "Man of Science", which I haven't been able to trace. Were they documentaries?

"Man of Science" could have been a short film about Faraday. I don't recall the other one. The film I do remember and very much enjoyed doing, utterly unlike anything I'd done before, was called "Green Fingers". I don't think it was particularly a very good film, but I simply loved playing in it. I played a bitch coming between Robert Beatty and Carol Raye and that was fun. I suppose the film was fairly controversial in its day, being about osteopathy which was not recognised then.

Those films all had very strong casts...

England has always had the most wonderful reservoir of character actors, and that is still true. We were never very good at making stars, although I suppose you could say I was made into a star in the 30's, but not by Hollywood standards. After I made "Tudor Rose", nothing happened for something like eighteen months. I longed to do something in the theatre, but I wasn't allowed. Then Hitchcock wanted me to go to Hollywood to test for "Rebecca", but my name meant nothing over there. "Tudor Rose" played at the Roxy in New York, but beyond that I think it only played in a few art houses. I don't know if I would have been allowed to go to Hollywood -- I suppose Selznick would have had the last word on it.

Your last two films represent a complete break in that they were both crime films.

Yes, one of them was very interesting. It was called "Three Weird Sisters"; a sort of Gothic horror job, and it had a script by Dylan Thomas. They found it difficult to get him to finish a scene, because, by then, he was well onto the bottle! It didn't work but it was an interesting film. Mary Merrall was in that, as were Nancy Price and Mary Clare, and they were formidable! Daniel Birt, the director, and I got on very well. He was very amusing. We did some of the filming in a Welsh mining district. Time draws a veil over the making of it--but nobody got on with anybody, except Dan in the middle who was lovely and made it all possible for everyone. He was highly intelligent with wide interests.

The second of those films was Counterblast. What do you remember of that?

That was Robert Beatty again. We'd been together in "Green Fingers". And Mervyn Johns and Margaretta Scott, who was lovely. It was something about laboratories and rats in cages, that's all I remember. I've obviously blocked it out!

In the 40's, were you able to choose your roles?

What I really wanted to do in the 40's was the theatre and I did do quite a bit. The films I made were not mostly very good and I didn't particularly like the business of filming. My first husband was in the profession and, had he not been killed, I might have stayed in it.