When I first met him in 1970 I was doing my first film and having terrible problems. He was running the Shell Film Unit as well as being on the production board of the British Film Institute. I went and showed him the remnants of my film. It was so badly cut and spliced we could barely view it, and it was the only time I ever had tea served by a butler in an editing room. He was a very grand man, dressed impeccably, and I was a complete mess. He said very sweetly: "It's going to be a great film, but it's not worth dying for."
He had made a brilliant film called Housing Problems in the 1930s. It was the first cinema verite film where real people were interviewed on film. It was an enormous achievement because the sound gear in those days to record someone talking was huge. He actually moved this equipment into an East End slum, and his was the first interview with a proper Cockney ever done. It is amazing to see how the English language has changed and how much is revealed when people speak in their own way and aren't reciting lines they have been given.
He had this sort of very eccentric manner in dealing with things, which made you think that he wasn't quite there and wasn't very focused at all, but he was completely brilliant when it came to structuring films and deciding what films were about. He helped me work out how to tell the story and whose voice I was going to tell the film through. It was shot up in Liverpool and he made me make transcripts of all the people I had spoken to and choose the person whose story I was going to tell.
I think the single most difficult thing is doing your first film, because you don't know whether you're going to finish it. I had never thought of applying for a grant but he got me the money from the British Film Institute to actually finish the film and it was shown on Granada and used in a World Commission on Housing.
Sir Arthur Elton was one of the founding fathers of British documentary. Film-maker Nick Broomfield directed the current Sky+ ad campaign.Reuse content