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The Guardian (20/Oct/1999) - Obituary: Dallas Bower

(c) The Guardian (20/Oct/1999)

Dallas Bower

Innovative spirit of television's early days, he also left his mark on films with Hitchcock and Olivier

Dallas Bower, who has died aged 92, was a pioneer television producer in the medium's earliest days, and later an influential figure in the film world. Laurence Olivier's 1944 classic movie, Henry V, owed its inception to him.

Born in London, Bower was named after a village in Scotland, the same Dallas that gave its name to the city in Texas. His family were descended from Sarah Siddons (I remember him gleefully pointing out the hidden alley in Marylebone, Siddons Lane, named after the great tragedienne).

He was educated at Willington school in Putney, and Lynton House in Notting Hill Gate, and went on to St John's College, Hurstpierpoint, where an English master called Claude Gurney, who became a successful west end stage director, had considerable influence on him. Taken to the cinema by an uncle, he was also profoundly impressed by DW Griffith's epics, The Birth Of A Nation and Intolerance.

Bower entered the film industry as a sound recordist, becoming a film editor and assistant director. His first job was in the early 20s, as a bench-boy at the Marconi Scientific Instrument Company, which had a radio transmitter in Soho. In 1927, he went to BTH (British Thomson Houston), where he encountered an American radio engineer, Harold Sundy, who was installing sound equipment at Elstree film studios. Sundy asked if Bower would care to work as a sound recordist in films. "No one knows how to do this. Would you like to chance your arm?" Bower knew at once that this was what he wanted to do.

One of his first jobs was to record a wild track of an actress repeating the word "knife" in Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929). The effect helped to establish the film as the most imaginative of early British talkies. Bower also recorded the first all-talking British film, Under The Greenwood Tree (1930), Escape Me Never (1935) with Elisabeth Bergner, and with Olivier for the first time on As You Like It, starring Bergner again. The film was Shakespeare as rewritten by JM Barrie; Dallas told me that Olivier hated it.

Bower was already intrigued by the prospect of television, and in 1936 published Plan For Cinema, in which he forecast that it would take over many of the functions of the movies. Graham Greene reviewed the book in the Spectator, partly in alarm but also seizing on the hope that such a change might get rid of the star system. When the BBC television service went on the air later that year, Bower was one of its two senior producers.

He went on to fill the tiny (nine or 10-inch) screens of pre-war receivers with programmes that would have been ambitious at any time: a revue called Pasquinade, Act II of Tristan and Isolde, with miming actors and off-screen singers, the Garrick version of The Taming of the Shrew and, in 1938, Julius Caesar in modern dress, with the conspirators wearing fascist uniforms.

After a Tempest, with the young Peggy Ashcroft as Miranda, Bower's next Shakespeare was to have been Henry V. He had just completed the script when Hitler invaded Poland and television was summarily closed down. Bower joined up as an officer in the Royal Corps of Signals, but was soon seconded to the ministry of information to help set up a film division under Sir Kenneth Clark. He shared an office with John Betjeman and Graham Greene.

In 1941-42, he returned temporarily to the BBC to produce propaganda radio epics. After the Soviet Union entered the war, the Foreign Office asked for something to salute Britain's new allies. Bower put on a stirring version of Alexander Nevsky, starring Olivier. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, the same team was re-convened for an American tribute, Columbus, with music by William Walton.

Back at the ministry in the spring of 1944, the film department, now led by Jack Beddington, was searching for a subject which would brace Britain for the fearful risks and possible setbacks of a seaborne invasion of fortress Europe. Bower had seen Olivier deliver the "Once more into the breach" speech from Henry V, dug out his old television script and proposed a film of it.

Olivier was immediately attracted to the idea, though the ministry, according to Bower, was reluctant to back them financially. It was left to the emigré Italian producer Filippo del Giudice, who had been interned as an alien in 1940, to fund the venture. Olivier eventually wrote his own screenplay, with the critic Alan Dent, but Dallas Bower remained as associate producer. It was his idea to film the Agincourt battle scenes in Ireland, thus avoiding the difficulties of location work in England - where fields had been ploughed up for crops or ringed with obstacles to deter airborne landings, and where horses and horsemen were hard to find.

After the war, Bower mounted a number of freelance television productions, made some 80 commercials and was involved in the hybrid new craft of television film-making. Among other works, he produced Sir Lancelot, starring William Russell.

But Bower was increasingly drawn back to his first love, the cinema. In 1950 he directed an innovative Anglo-French version of Alice In Wonderland, which sadly was overwhelmed by the Disney cartoon version and never received proper release or its due recognition. Worse, Dallas's film had been shot in Anscocolor, an American adaptation of Agfacolor which steadily faded. He was delighted when, in his 90th year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York painstakingly restored a print frame by frame.

A dapper, sociable and entertaining man, Dallas Bower was, in more recent years, celebrated as the most faithful, virtually resident, member of the Savile Club. His marriage to Violet Collings in 1927 was dissolved in 1945, and he is survived by his daughter Tessa (an elder daughter died) and a son, the publisher Delian Bower.

Dallas Bower, film and television pioneer, born July 25 1907; died October 18 1999