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The Times (22/Dec/2007) - Obituary: Peter Handford

(c) The Times (22/Dec/2007)

Distinguished film sound recordist esteemed for his purist preference for natural, live sound over studio re-creations

During the half-century that he worked in film, Peter Handford was sought after as a sound recordist by the best-known directors in the UK and Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Pollack, Tony Richardson and David Lean were among those who employed him. And in the course of his career he became friends with many actors, including Robert Redford, Katharine Hepburn, Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.

Like any good soundman Handford took pride in a clear, well-mixed soundtrack. He believed that although their technology had improved, new feature films were unnecessarily swamped with extraneous music. Handford always advocated, where possible, allowing the natural ambience speak for itself.

His career ran from the world of primitive mono sound of the mid-1930s, to the digital multichannel surround sound of the 1990s. In 1985 he won an Oscar and a Bafta for his work on Sidney Pollack's Out of Africa. He later worked on Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Gorillas in the Mist (1988) and White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), Clint Eastwood's homage to The African Queen (1951).

In the early 1960s Handford took a pivotal role in the development of English New Wave cinema which was led by such directors as Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger and Jack Clayton. Handford created the sound for a series of ground-breaking British films of the era, including Room at the Top (1959), The Entertainer (1960), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Sons and Lovers (1960), Billy Liar (1963), Tom Jones (1963), Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). Room at the Top, Handford said, "marked the beginning of a new age for British cinema. It was no longer a series of drawing-room comedies or stiff war films. Cinema was starting to reflect what was happening at the Royal Court Theatre in London".

While on the set of Billy Liar, he met his future wife, the actress Helen Fraser, who was playing Billy's long-suffering girlfriend, Barbara. The loan of a coat during a cold morning's location shoot in a cemetery sparked a love affair that lasted until his death.

He also worked with the blacklisted American director Joseph Losey, who during the McCarthy witch-hunts had left the US for England. They collaborated on films including The Go-Between (1970), starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates; A Doll's House with Jane Fonda; The Romantic Englishwoman (1975) with Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine; and Steaming (1985), the final film for Diana Dors.

At a time when 95 per cent of exterior shots were being faked inside a studio, Handford used his wartime experiences to develop a system of location sound recording, which he pioneered on David Lean's location shoot in Venice for Summer Madness (1955), starring Katharine Hepburn.

Peter Handford was born near Weybridge, Surrey, in 1919 and joined Denham Film Studios in Buckinghamshire in March 1936 at the age of 17, as an unofficial apprentice. No apprentice scheme existed, so Handford was expected to pick up the necessary skills from observing the senior technicians at work. A highlight of his pre-war career was A Yank at Oxford (1938) starring Robert Taylor and Maureen O'Sullivan. During the war he was part of the British Expeditionary Force evacuated when the Germans overran France. He returned as a cameraman on the D-Day landings.

His first big film was Alfred Hitchcock's experimental Under Capricorn (1949), which featured the photography of Jack Cardiff.

"Working for Hitch was fairly boring," Handford would later recall. "It was a great honour because he was a master film-maker but he was not interested in having a discussion. Everything was mapped out and you did as you were told."

However, Handford was delighted when, in 1972, Hitchcock tracked him down in Suffolk, specifically to ask him to do the sound on Frenzy, the first film he had shot in London for 25 years. Despite working on such high-profile films as Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and The Lady Vanishes (the 1979 remake), Handford found films in the 1970s frustrating. His experience with Michael Cimino on the disastrous Heaven's Gate (1980) prompted a short sabbatical away from the big screen.

For several years he worked as a freelance sound man for Anglia Television in Norwich, supplying location sound for news reports. It was while he was working for Farming Diary that a message came through saying that the Hollywood director Sidney Pollack wanted to meet him in London to offer him -it later turned out - sound work on Out of Africa. "Sidney immediately got into my good books when he told me he wanted as much live sound as possible rather than trying to re create it in the studio during post-production."

The shoot took Handford to Kenya where he went deep into the bush to record the authentic sounds of the African landscape. Later he worked on the sets of Dangerous Liaisons and White Hunter, Black Heart, the latter starring and directed by Clint Eastwood. On Dangerous Liaisons he recalled Michelle Pfeiffer as being "painfully shy" but found John Malkovich "a great help because he shared my concerns about the sound of (background) traffic. A road ran too close to the chateau we were using as our main location. We agreed that if the noise got too bad he would simply stop and force a retake."

Handford retired after finishing work on Havana with Sidney Pollack and Robert Redford in 1988.

Handford was a modest man who did not care for the fuss and glamour of the film industry. In his spare time he used film recording techniques to capture the vanishing world of steam railways. He established the renowned record label Transacord which is dedicated to steam railway recordings. His collection of steam recordings is now lodged with the National Railway Museum in York.

He leaves a widow, and two daughters from a previous marriage.